Prospect's Palczewski on verge of milestone as Illini open vs. Wyoming

This is an odd record to set in the first game of a season.

But when Illinois takes the field Saturday to face Wyoming, offensive tackle Alex Palczewski will establish a new school record for most starts in an Illini uniform with 53, barring something unexpected.

And he still has a full season to play.

A Prospect High School grad, Palczewski is basically a sixth-year starter. He began his career in 2017 and started 12 games as a true freshman, then 12 and 13 the next two years. He missed four games during the pandemic season, started 12 last fall and decided to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility due to COVID.

The Illini have had some impressive continuity on the offensive line, with Vederian Lowe and Doug Kramer starting 52 and 48 games, respectively.

Both those players decided to move onto the NFL and Kramer, a Hinsdale Central grad, was drafted by the Bears, then suffered an injury in training camp.

For a fellow veteran on the front line, Palczewski will rely on Glenbard West product Alex Pihlstrom, a former walk-on who started five games last year.

Here are a few more things to watch in the Illini's season-opener:

• Second-year coach Bret Bielema took an "if you can't beat them, hire them" approach to the offseason. He hired offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. away from Texas-San Antonio, which beat the Illini 37-30 at Memorial Stadium last year.

The two have worked together before as Lunney coached tight ends when Bielema was at Arkansas. Lunney was a Razorbacks QB from 1992-95.

"People are trying to guess, '(Is the offense) a little bit of us last year, are they a little bit of UTSA, are they a little bit of both?'" Bielema said. "Well, Saturday we'll find out."

Bielema did mention he thinks Wyoming might be a better team than last year's UTSA.

• As is customary these days, Bielema did not announce a starting quarterback. The options are Rutgers transfer Art Sitkowski and Syracuse transfer Tommy Devito.

Sitkowski started five games for the Illini last year, but suffered a wrist injury in the Penn State game and missed spring practice. Devito is new to Champaign, but arrived in time to play in the spring. Devito threw for 2,360 yards for the Orange in 2019.

"I know who the starting quarterback is, the starting quarterback knows who the starting quarterback is, and our team knows that," Bielema said. "I think our guys understand the value of these first games and what it allows us to do (with keeping the opponent guessing)."

• Running back Chase Brown produced two of the top seven rushing performances in Illini history last season, piling up 257 yards against Charlotte and 223 at Penn State. He could become the third player in school history to post a second 1,000-yard rushing season, joining Jim Grabowski and Robert Holcombe if it happens.

• On defense, the Illini went from 35 points allowed in 2021 to 22 last fall, then extended the contract of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. A former Colorado safety, Walters, 36, came to Illinois from Missouri last year.

Five of the top seven tacklers return, including safety Sydney Brown, who finished No. 1, and linebacker Calvin Hart, who was named Big Ten defensive player of the week after the season-opening win over Nebraska, then missed the rest of the year with an injury.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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