Introducing Bret Bielema's third Illinois football team

College/Prep Sports Reporter
With training camp underway and the Sept. 2 season opener against Toledo fast approaching, Illini beat writer Scott Richey breaks down the Illinois football roster, position by position, ahead of the 2023 season:
Luke Altmyer
Bret Bielema hasn’t named a starting quarterback yet for the 2023 season, but Mississippi transfer Luke Altmyer is a leading candidate for Illinois.
Connor Hannan/Illinois athletics
4 John Paddock 6-0 190 Sr.
9 Luke Altmyer 6-2 200 So.
10 Donovan Leary 6-2 215 R-Fr.
11 Jake Huber 6-1 205 So.
12 Kirkland Michaux 6-4 225 So.
16 Cal Swanson 6-3 190 Fr.
Position breakdown: Bret Bielema has yet to name a starting quarterback, which will be his third new opening-day starter in three seasons. The only surprise will be if Altmyer doesn’t follow in the steps of Brandon Peters and Tommy DeVito. The Mississippi transfer was behind Matt Corral in 2021 and narrowly lost the preseason competition to Southern California transfer Jaxson Dart in 2022. The Illinois job is now his for the taking, and all indications are he’s taken it. Paddock provides a veteran backup after five seasons at Ball State, and Leary has a year in offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.’s system under his belt after redshirting last year. That’s arguably the three-deep, with Michaux (a walk-on) and Swanson (an early enrollee freshman) further down the depth chart.
Running backs
0 Josh McCray 6-1 235 So.
3 Kaden Feagin 6-3 240 Fr.
21 Aidan Laughery 5-11 200 R-Fr.
22 Jean-Marc Etienne 5-11 195 Fr.
23 Reggie Love III 5-11 205 Jr.
25 Jordan Anderson 6-4 240 R-Fr.
Position breakdown: The Illinois coaches spent part of last season talking about Chase Brown’s workload and wanting to lessen the responsibility on his shoulders. The follow-through on that never really happened. Brown carried the ball 328 times in 2022 — second only to Air Force’s Brad Roberts nationally — and had 258 more carries than Love. Illinois’ running back situation this fall will likely be more of a timeshare with Love and a healthy McCray, who missed the bulk of last season with a knee injury. Anderson and Laughery could also be in the mix and give the Illini two distinctly different styles to work with as a power back and speed back, respectively. Feagin, an early enrollee, could challenge Anderson in the power back category.
Wide receivers
1 Isaiah Williams 5-10 180 Jr.
2 Malik Elzy 6-2 210 Fr.
6 Ashton Hollins 6-5 180 R-Fr.
7 Kenari Wilcher 6-0 185 Fr.
8 Shawn Miller 6-1 195 R-Fr.
13 Pat Bryant 6-3 195 Jr.
14 Casey Washington 6-2 200 Sr.
15 Alex Capka-Jones 6-4 175 Jr.
17 Collin Dixon 6-1 200 Fr.
18 Chase Miller 6-1 180 R-Fr.
19 Eian Pugh 6-3 170 R-Fr.
80 Hank Beatty 5-11 185 So.
83 Keion Battle 6-1 200 So.
86 Weston Adams 5-11 195 R-Fr.
87 Tyler McClure 6-2 205 So.
Position breakdown: There are few questions at the top. Williams, Bryant and Washington were three of Illinois’ top-four receivers last season, with only Brian Hightower not returning. Williams is looked at as a potential All-Big Ten wide receiver, Bryant had a major breakout season in 2022 and Washington might have the best hands on the team. The backups are where the questions lie, with Beatty’s seven catches for 25 yards the extent of their combined experience. Wilcher got a head start as an early enrollee, Elzy could fill a significant role in his first year and Shawn Miller is healthy after losing the 2022 season to an ACL injury. The dark horse might be junior college transfer Capka-Jones, who was basically the final piece to the roster puzzle in late June.
36 Ben Schultz 6-3 230 Jr.
41 Tanner Arkin 6-4 255 So.
81 Griffin Moore 6-4 250 Jr.
82 Nate Guinn 6-6 220 Fr.
84 Owen Anderson 6-4 230 R-Fr.
88 Henry Boyer 6-6 265 R-Fr.
89 Tip Reiman 6-5 265 Jr.
Position breakdown: “This is the year Illinois finally uses its tight ends.” Maybe you’ve heard that before. It’s been a common preseason refrain with no real payoff by late November. The last Illini tight end with 25 catches — we’re talking just two a game — was Jon Davis in 2013, and he hit that exact number. Reiman is the lone returning tight end that played more than a handful of snaps, which opens the door for Griffin and Boyer. Griffin got his first real action in four years in the ReliaQuest Bowl and caught his first career pass. Boyer is a rather large target. But, in all likelihood, as long as they block well, they will have fulfilled their purpose.
53 Devin Hale 6-0 310 So.
54 Julian Pearl 6-6 315 Sr.
55 TJ McMillen 6-3 275 Fr.
56 Magnus Moller 6-9 310 R-Fr.
62 Sam Tsagalis 6-2 275 R-Fr.
63 Dezmond Schuster 6-5 330 So.
64 Josh Kreutz 6-2 280 So.
65 Joey Okla 6-2 325 R-Fr.
66 Jordyn Slaughter 6-5 325 Sr.
67 Will Leys 6-2 275 So.
68 Zachary Barlev 6-5 305 So.
70 Zach Aamland 6-6 295 Fr.
71 Hunter Whitenack 6-7 345 So.
72 Zy Crisler 6-6 330 Jr.
73 Josh Gesky 6-5 325 So.
75 Brandon Henderson 6-5 315 Fr.
76 Clayton Leonard 6-4 290 R-Fr.
78 Isaiah Adams 6-5 315 Sr.
79 Luciano Elias 6-5 320 R-Fr.
Position breakdown: Illinois caught a break when both Adams and Pearl decided their best path to an NFL roster ran through another season in Champaign. The left side of the Illini line, then, returned intact after Adams stepped into and thrived in a starting role at left guard after transferring from Garden City Community College in Kansas. Pearl, a Danville native and left tackle, has 27 career starts going into this season. Crisler’s return meant finding just two new starters to round out part of the group that wound up a Joe Moore Award semifinalist. Center was the real question mark — particularly after East Carolina transfer Avery Jones flipped to Auburn in the 11th hour — but Kreutz seems to have impressed this spring and summer. The other open spot on the right side depends on if Crisler sticks at guard, but Slaughter, Gesky, Barlev and Schuster are in the mix.
4 Johnny Newton 6-2 295 Jr.
6 Denzel Daxon 6-2 315 Sr.
11 Alex Bray 6-4 255 Fr.
18 Mason Muragin 6-4 240 Fr.
23 TeRah Edwards 6-2 320 Jr.
48 Bryce Barnes 6-2 280 Sr.
55 Sed McConnell 6-3 280 So.
56 Jeremiah Warren 6-3 295 Fr.
57 Evan Kirts 6-5 300 Jr.
88 Keith Randolph Jr. 6-5 305 Jr.
93 Henry Engel 6-2 260 Fr.
94 Joep Engbers 6-4 325 Fr.
95 Dylan Davis 6-4 300 So.
99 Christian Lorenzo 6-3 285 R-Fr.
Position breakdown: Few teams can match Illinois’ pair of starting defensive tackles. The “Law Firm” of Newton and Randolph both wound up preseason All-Americans heading into the 2023 season. Lining up between those two will be Edwards, who got some time backing up Calvin Avery last fall. The backups are the real question marks. Barnes has the most experience and is healthy again after missing all of spring ball with an injury. Then it’s McConnell and Daxon with seriously limited experience last season. Despite that, Daxon, an Ohio transfer, is the likely backup at nose guard behind Edwards.
13 Trey Smith 6-4 225 Fr.
15 Jared Badie 6-3 225 R-Fr.
17 Gabe Jacas 6-3 265 So.
31 Laine Jenkins 6-6 240 So.
33 Ezekiel Holmes 6-5 245 Sr.
49 Seth Coleman 6-5 240 Jr.
52 Pat Farrell 6-5 265 Fr.
90 Alec Bryant 6-4 240 So.
Position breakdown: This is basically the same group from last season, save for the departure of a couple players (Shammond Cooper to Akron and Deon Pate to graduation) that didn’t really factor into the rotation. Coleman is back after doubling his tackle and sack totals from 2021. So is Jacas, who wound up a Freshman All-American after putting up 36 tackles and four sacks. Bryant is a more-than-capable backup, Holmes is healthy after an ACL injury in 2022 and Jenkins could be a dark-horse contributor.
ui fb mh
Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes (8) makes a tackle at the football game between Illinois and Michigan State at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, November 5, 2022
Mike Heiniger / The New-Gazette
8 Tarique Barnes 6-1 230 Sr.
28 Dylan Rosiek 6-1 225 So.
30 Jojo Hayden 6-2 230 Fr.
34 Ryan Meed 6-1 230 Jr.
39 Kenenna Odeluga 6-1 230 So.
40 Ronan Poynton 6-2 215 Fr.
41 James Kreutz 6-0 210 R-Fr.
42 Luke Zardzin 6-0 205 So.
43 Nick True 6-5 225 Fr.
45 Malachi Hood 6-2 220 R-Fr.
Position breakdown: Illinois was going to have to pivot to some of its younger linebackers this season anyway, with Isaac Darkangelo using up the last of his eligibility in 2022. CJ Hart opting for a spring transfer to Oregon State just accelerated the timeline for Rosiek and Odeluga. Barnes is the steady veteran, back for his third season as a full-time starter. Who he’s paired with is the question. Rosiek is the likely frontrunner given Odeluga has mostly been used as a third-down pass rusher.
0 Nicario Harper 6-0 205 Sr.
1 Demetrius Hill 6-2 195 So.
2 Saboor Karriem 6-3 185 Fr.
3 Tahveon Nicholson 5-11 180 Jr.
5 Zachary Tobe 6-2 180 Fr.
7 Matthew Bailey 6-2 205 So.
9 Tyson Rooks 6-4 190 R-Fr.
10 Miles Scott 5-11 200 So.
12 Elijah Mc-Cantos 6-0 180 R-Fr.
14 Xavier Scott 5-11 185 So.
16 Prince Ford 5-11 165 Jr.
20 Tyler Strain 5-9 180 So.
21 Clayton Bush 6-1 195 Sr.
22 Kaleb Patterson 6-1 180 So.
24 Nick Fedanzo 6-0 210 Jr.
25 Jaheim Clarke 6-1 160 Fr.
26 Mike Manning 5-8 190 Jr.
27 Matthew Bobak 5-11 200 So.
29 TJ Griffin 6-0 200 R-Fr.
32 CJ Bufkin 5-11 195 Jr.
35 Grayson Griffin 5-11 180 R-Fr.
37 Solo Turner 6-2 220 Sr.
38 Johnny Schmitt 6-0 195 Fr.
44 Ben Clawson 6-0 200 R-Fr.
46 Corey Rashad 5-8 175 Fr.
47 Mac Resetich 6-0 200 Fr.
Position breakdown: This group will look nothing like the secondary Illinois fielded the last two seasons. Those guys have all moved on. Mostly to the NFL, where Kerby Joseph and Tony Adams are projected starters in year two for the Lions and Jets, respectively, and Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and Quan Martin were all selected in the 2023 NFL draft. The last man standing is Nicholson, who is a lock to start at cornerback. The other three (or four) spots are more up for grabs. Bailey will wind up at one of the safety spots after a few highlight moments as a true freshman in 2022, and Hill in the other wouldn’t be a surprise after he put together a Freshman All-American season at Florida International last year.
Special Teams
5 Caleb Griffin 6-3 215 Sr.
19 Hugh Robertson 6-2 225 So.
24 David Olano 5-11 165 Fr.
31 Declan Duley 6-1 205 Fr.
36 Lane Hansen 6-0 220 So.
39 Aidan Hall 6-2 205 Jr.
42 Alex McLaughlin 5-10 220 So.
52 Patrick Mahoney III 6-2 205 Fr.
98 Fabrizio Pinton 6-3 230 So.
Position breakdown: Griffin returns for his final season as the Illini kicker, and the Danville native made 14 of 19 field goals and all 32 of his extra point attempts last season. But Griffin could be challenged by Olano. The Naperville North product drilled a 50-yard field goal at the All-American Bowl at the Alamadome in San Antonio, the longest in the game’s history. Robertson struggled early in his first season as Illinois’ punter. The 30-year-old Australian averaged just 37.7 yards per punt through the first two-thirds of the season. Then he figured it out. Robertson finished the season averaging 44 yards per punt in his final four games. The left-footed Duley, though, could still challenge Robertson. At long snapper, Hall handled punt snap duties in 12 games after also handling field goals and extra points to start the season. Hansen ultimately took over the latter in the final 10 games.

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