Asmussen | Five Illini football camp questions that need answers

CHAMPAIGN — The vacations are over.
So are the league-wide preseason press conferences and TV appearances.
Time for the Illinois football team to go to work with an eye toward Sept. 2. That’s when dangerous Toledo visits Memorial Stadium for the 2023 season opener. The same weekend Illinois’ 1983 Big Ten champions are honored.
No pressure other than the fact that 1983 Illini team was the only one to beat every conference school in the same season.
You have to win more than eight games to impress Mike White and Co., which notched 10 wins in a magical year.
If the current team is looking to match it, the journey starts this week. Bret Bielema’s Illinois team opens training camp on Thursday night at Memorial Stadium. The third-year Illini coach meets with the media earlier in the day at the Smith Center.
Why the evening practice? Well, the first two Illinois games are at night and the head coach likes to approximate the schedule as best he can. Expect lots of piped-in crowd noise, too. Kansas fans eagerly anticipate a rare visit from a Big Ten school on Sept. 8.
The breakthrough 2022 season is in the past. Great to talk about it in the future with the kids and grandkids, but it has little bearing on the task at hand.
Except ...
The confidence in the locker room and coaching offices is as high as it has been in a decade. The outside expectations are greater, too.
But isn’t that what Illinois should want? Who goes into the season thinking, “Let’s be average?” The answer, of course, is nobody.
During the past three-plus decades, Illinois football has been, well, inconsistent is the kindest word that comes to mind. At times, much worse than that.
Since 1991, Illinois has put together consecutive winning seasons only once, in 2010 and 2011. And fired the guy (Ron Zook) who pulled it off. Oops.
The idea for the current team is to buck the trend. Follow eight wins with at least seven.
Listening to the players, they are aiming for much more. A West Division title at the minimum. We’ll see.
Just wondering
Plenty of questions for Illinois to answer in training camp before it can start a streak of winning seasons. Here are five that come to mind.
1. Is Luke Altmyer the right choice at quarterback?
Bielema and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. sure hope so. Playing in a QB-friendly offense at Mississippi, Altmyer wasn’t able to beat out Jaxson Dart. The junior had a solid season with more eligibility to use, so Altmyer looked for a new home.
He isn’t Tommy DeVito personality-wise. Altmyer is more quiet Mississippian than brash New Jerseyite. His teammates talk first about Altmyer’s arm strength. The rest of the stuff is being worked on, which would be the case no matter who came in to replace DeVito.
Altmyer’s ability to throw deep and willingness to use his legs to move the ball means he is more than just a game-manager.
Is he a winner? Can he can hit a wide receiver who is tightly covered with the game on the line? To be determined.
2. How does the team replace Devon Witherspoon?
It can’t. He was a once-in-a-generation talent now getting paid $30 million.
The team also lost Quan Martin, Sydney Brown and Kendall Smith. The coaches knew the departures were coming and started to work younger players into the rotation last season.
Having Aaron Henry in charge of the defense helps with the less-experienced defensive backs. He’s been in their position and knows what to say and teach.
Fortunately for Illinois, Taz Nicholson, Xavier Scott, Tyler Strain and Matthew Bailey gained valuable playing time in 2022. They appear ready for an increased role and one or two might end up being the next Brown or Martin. Probably not the next Witherspoon. That is a different level.
3. Who fills Chase Brown’s cleats?
Two guys ... at least. Reggie Love III and Josh McCray are up first. With a bunch of young bucks ready to jump in if called.
Everyone assumes Love and McCray aren’t as dynamic as Brown. But until given extended carries, there is no way to know for sure. The coaches want balance and you can’t achieve that without guys getting the most out of every attempt.
Expect Illinois to go with the hot hand. If McCray or Love exploit holes early in games, they will continue to get the ball. Two years ago, Brown earned his time by excelling when it was his turn.
4. Who is in back up front?
The starting offensive linemen are more or less decided: Julian Pearl, Isaiah Adams, Zy Crisler, Josh Kreutz and Josh Gesky figure to get the call in the opener.
But what if one of them misses time with an injury? Or needs a break during the game?
Veteran Jordyn Slaughter and Zach Barlev are the first options off the bench. Newcomer Brandon Henderson and Magnus Moller could be in the mix.
Bielema doesn’t have the plug-and-play depth on the offensive line he enjoyed at Wisconsin.
5. Which freshman makes the biggest impact?
From all I’m hearing, it will be receiver Malik Elzy.
The Chicago Simeon product isn’t likely to top 1,000 yards like Mikey Dudek did as a rookie in 2014. Not with Isaiah Williams back after an 82-catch season. But Elzy could approach the freshman numbers of Brandon Lloyd (511 yards) and Arrelious Benn (676). Both Lloyd and Benn rank among the school’s career top-10 receivers.
There is plenty of competition at the position, but if Elzy is a unique talent, he will get on the field.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at

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