Forged during the back half of his first campaign in charge at Illinois, Bret Bielema’s bunch has a clear identity.
The Fighting Illini have some of the same traits Bielema’s successful squads at Wisconsin and Arkansas maintained. They’re set up well to run the football this fall on offense and continue improving upon the strides they made on defense a year ago.
“We talk a lot about tough, smart, dependable,” Bielema said during his press conference at Big Ten media days in Indianapolis last week. “That’s our DNA. That’s what we’re made of. It’s easy to regurgitate that. A lot of teams use it as a catchphrase, but it’s a really hard thing to live. It’s a hard thing to do.
“I think the DNA of our football team headed into this season,” he continued, “I know it better, and I believe they feel it, they understand it. They definitely can regurgitate it, but I think they understand and know what it means.”
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Illinois won four of its last seven contests, including an unforgettable nine-overtime upset victory at Penn State, in 2021 to finish 5-7 after losing four in a row in September. Virginia topped Illinois 42-14 in Charlottesville that month, but the Illini tightened up defensively afterward and never allowed more than 33 points in a game the rest of the year.
Bielema said the string of four straight setbacks could’ve slowed the development of his program, but because his team didn’t quit and ultimately capped the season with a rout of in-state foe Northwestern, a strong tone was set for the offseason.
“What I know and appreciate more is I think I just know our roster so much more,” he said. “We’ve had moments of adversity and moments of success, and we’ve added players now that we’ve recruited. So, there’s a really good vibe. … I think it’s very real, and I can’t wait to see where it leads.”
The defense, which gave up 12.9 fewer points per game last year than the previous season — ex-coach Lovie Smith’s final in Champaign — returns defensive coordinator Ryan Walters who aided Bielema with the turnaround. Bielema was Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach there, and then in between his stint at Arkansas and getting the job at Illinois, he worked as a defensive assistant in the NFL with the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.
Standout defensive end Jer’Zhan Newton racked up 50 tackles and three sacks as a freshman last fall, and he’ll anchor the defensive front. Safety Sydney Brown was Illinois’ leading tackler a season ago and is back as well.
His twin brother, junior running back Chase Brown, is the athlete the offense is built around. Brown, who began his career at Western Michigan, averaged 5.9 yards per carry last fall and rushed for 1,005 yards to clinch the 12th season in Bielema’s 13 as a head coach that his team produced a 1,000-yard rusher.
Brown is positioned to do it again, and perhaps be better than he was, because, according to Bielema, the Illini’s offensive line has been upgraded and is poised for a successful season. Sixth-year senior right tackle Alex Palczewski enters his final go-around with 52 career starts under his belt and left tackle Julian Pearl returns as does center Alex Pihlstrom, who has starting experience, too.
“Those three guys, in addition to the new faces you’re going to see, have got me very excited about our offensive line play,” Bielema said.
Illinois opens in Week 0 with a home bout against Wyoming ahead of traveling to open Big Ten play at Indiana on Sept. 2, so by the time the Cavaliers make the return trek to Memorial Stadium a week later to complete the home-and-home series, Bielema and company should have a great idea about their potential in 2022.
“We kick it off in a big way,” Bielema said.