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It’s July...and it’s Illinois week???

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

These are heady times in Chambana. The Illinois Fighting Illini won 8 games in 2022, the most since the Zooker took Illinois to the Rose Bowl in 2007. What’s the outlook for 2023?

Illinois led the nation with 24 interceptions last year and had three DBs drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, including #5 overall pick Devon Witherspoon. With three new starters replacing three NFL draft picks, we’re definitely looking for some regression in the secondary.

However, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare for the Illinois D and new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry, who took over after Ryan Walters departed for West Lafayette. Nearly every contributor on the front 7 is back including arguably the top DT tandem in the nation, Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph. Both were All B1G last year (Newton first team, Randolph third) and Newton the #1 graded returning interior lineman according to PFF. Also returning on the line is Edge Gabe Jacas, who was Honorable Mention All-B1G as a true freshaman. Honorable Mention All-B1G Linebacker Tarique Barnes also returns for his senior year. Safety Matthew Bailey was fourth in the country among freshmen for interceptions. The defense might not be quite as good as last year, but I don’t expect the dropoff to be too large.

On the other side of the ball, losing Chase Brown and his 1643 yards will be a challenge, but with 4 of the top 6 offensive linemen returning and a hopefully healthy Josh McCray at RB, we should get some quality production out of the running game. If there is one thing you can trust a Bert-led squad to perform, it is running the damn ball! QB is a question mark with the departure of Touchdown Tommy DeVito. Transfers Luke Altmeyer, from Mississippi State, and John Paddock from Illinois State will compete with RS freshman Donovan Leary for snaps under center.

The crossover schedule is favorable (PSU and Indy at home, Maryland on the road) and I have faith in Bert to put the pieces together for another solid season and another bowl trip. I’m not sure we’ll lay claim to the ultimate B1G West title and a trip to Indy to be the sacrificial lamb, but Illinois should be relevant in the hunt into November and that is all I ask.