You might not think so, but I believe Bret Bielema has done a lot for the Illinois football team since taking the reins.
Bielema entered the Illini program with kind of a bad stigma. I remember seeing some Wisconsin and Arkansas fans making not-so-nice comments about Bielema when he took the Illinois job. But, honestly, he has stabilized the Illinois program since the minute he got here.
Illinois finished the 2021 campaign 5-7, which is an improvement from the 2-5 COVID shortened campaign the year before. Four out of the seven losses were by seven points or less as well.
Recruiting has been solid and consistent, the latter word being the key for me. Bielema is building the foundation of the Illinois football program with freshmen and then sprinkling in key transfers. The previous coaching regime did it the other way around and failed.
One of the first key transfers Bielema was able to land while at Illinois was linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. Hart spent two seasons at North Carolina State where he amassed 53 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery.
This seemed to be a solid get for Bielema on paper, and then the first game of the season happened. Illinois had the game tied 9-9, and then Hart made a huge game-changing play by scooping up a fumble and taking it to the house.
Illinois would win that game against Nebraska, and Hart would finish with 6.0 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one fumble recovery, and one touchdown. That would also be the only game Hart would play for the Illini last season, as he would injure his knee in the game and would later have season-ending surgery.
Calvin Hart Jr. is ready to lead the Illinois football defense in 2022.
The knee has healed and Hart is ready to start anew as the Illinois football team begins their 2022 campaign with Wyoming on August 27. But the Illini linebacker won’t be heading into that first game without some national recognition.
On Monday, the Butkus Award watch list was revealed, and Hart was one of the linebackers to make the list. The Butkus Award is given to the top linebacker in the country at season’s end.
This is a huge honor to be considered one of the best linebackers in the nation despite only playing in one game last season. In that one game he did play, Hart was the main reason Illinois came away with the win. Without his great defense, Nebraska probably takes that game.
Hart is going to mean the world to the Illinois football program in 2022 and beyond. He is going to be our starting inside linebacker, and I don’t think he is going to have much of a challenge as long as he stays healthy. The leadership Hart is going to bring to the Illini this season will be invaluable. I can’t wait to see what he can do with a full year under Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.