Can this Illini team go where few before have gone? Bret Bielema is excited about his team

It's been a long time since there's been optimism around the Illinois football program.

From 2012 through 2021, the Illini had exactly zero winning seasons.

Go back to 1995 through 2021, a span of 28 seasons, and it's five winning records. That 1995 team had two of the top three picks in the 1996 NFL Draft - Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice - and still did not have a winning season.

But times are changing.

Illinois went 8-5 last year, played in its first January bowl game since 2007, earned a Top 25 College Football Playoff ranking for the first time, and developed a zero star recruit into the fifth pick in the NFL Draft.

The man responsible for that, third-year coach Bret Bielema, had reason to smile Wednesday at the 51st annual Big Ten football media days in Indianapolis.

"Very exciting time in our program right now," Bielema said.

He's not the only one thinking that - Illinois announced Wednesday a 9,500 increase in season ticket sales.

The Illini return 10 all-conference players this fall.

"I like where we're at," Bielema said. "I love the influx of talent. For me as a head coach, I've never felt more engaged with our roster, the way they're being developed, the way they're being coached. And the way that they react to our coaches is pretty cool."

As big of a step forward as the 2022 season was, and as far as Bielema has brought Illinois since Lovie Smith went 17-39 in his five years, he's not content.

Bielema didn't like the way Illinois finished last season.

"We've got a lot of unfinished business," Bielema said. "Last year we were an 8-5 team, but it broke up into a 7-1 team and a 1-4 team. And I focus myself on the 1-4 team more than any time in my career."

That 1-4 finish started with home losses to Michigan State and Purdue that cost Illinois its first Big Ten West title and ended with a 19-10 loss to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

Can this year's team make it back-to-back January bowl games for the first time since 1990?

Illinois has some big shoes to fill, starting in the defensive backfield where Devon Witherspoon was selected by the Seattle Seahawks with the fifth pick in April, and two more Illini defensive backs went in the top 66 picks.

While the defensive backfield will be new, they will be helped by a veteran defensive line led by the "Law Firm" of Jer'Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph. Both have been named in several publications as preseason all-Big Ten players, and Newton also is listed as a first rounder in most 2024 mock drafts.

The defense will also have a new coordinator after last year's, Ryan Walters, became the sixth assistant coach in Bielema's 15 seasons to land a head coaching job. Walters is now at Purdue, while last year's defensive backs coach Aaron Henry is the new defensive coordinator.

Bielema scored another coup this week by hiring Jim Leonhard as an analyst. Leonhard enjoyed tremendous success as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator from 2017-22, took the Badgers' interim head coaching job and went 4-3 last year, but was passed up for the head coaching job.

Offensively, Illinois has to replace another draft pick, running back Chase Brown (1,643 rushing yards, 13 total TDs). Reggie Love is the team's top returning rusher at 350 yards while sophomore Josh McCray among others will mix in behind an experienced offensive line.

Sophomore quarterback Luke Altmyer, a former 4-star recruit with offers from Florida State, LSU and Oregon, transfers in from Ole Miss to replace Tommy Devito, another transfer who completed 69% of his passes last year for 2,650 yards. Isaiah Williams caught 82 of those passes for 715 yards and is the top returning target for Altmyer, and he joined Newton and Randolph at media days Wednesday.

They all rode with Bielema on the drive from Champaign to Indianapolis.

"When I was riding over with those three guys, I was asking them questions about players I haven't seen, that only they've seen. Just to hear them say what they said with the intelligence they did, it tells me our best players are observant of what's going on around them," Bielema said.

"These three guys we brought over could have easily been three draft picks last year, but they came back to make a better opportunity for themselves and our football program."

The schedule starts with Toledo - a favorite to win the MAC - and has home games with Rose Bowl champ Penn State, Wisconsin and a Friday night date with Nebraska. But there's also no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule as Illinois takes its last crack at a West Division title before divisions go away in 2024.

The Illini are glad to have Bielema in charge, with his Hawkeye tattoo from his playing days at Iowa and three Big Ten championships coaching at Wisconsin who seems to have found a home back in the state he grew up in.

"I wanted to get back into head coaching, but I didn't want to go to a situation where I didn't think it could be sustained," Bielema said. "I wanted this to be my last rodeo. Signed a contract that literally has a no-compete with anybody in the Big Ten because I know where I want to go."

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