Illinois football has been the butt of the joke for much of the past decade.
It is depressing seeing people making fun of the Illini. As a fan, I want to see our program win so bad, but specifically, the last few seasons have been rough. Things seem to be changing, though.
Bret Bielema entered the picture and we instantly become a viable team. A 5-7 record might not look great, but we were in all but two games, and four out of the seven losses were by seven points or less.
It is time to get excited about Illinois football. We have a good team this season, and I think that will show on the field.
Here are three reasons to be optimistic about the Illinois football team in 2022.
1. Defensive experience
Illinois football had a defense last season that was surprisingly impressive. I didn’t think Ryan Walters would step into the role of defensive coordinator and improve the program as much as he did.
The Illini would finish the 2021 campaign giving up just 21.9 points per game, which ranked No. 25 in the nation. This was a massive improvement from the 34.9 points per game we were giving up in the 2020 campaign.
With that big of an improvement, you would think the defense would be gutted and most of the players would have departed due to graduation or the NFL. That isn’t the case at all. Yes, there were a few key players who left, like Kerby Joseph, but Illinois has the bulk of their defense returning.
On the defensive line, Johnny Newton is back and he started 11 games in 2021. Keith Randolph Jr. is back and he started seven games. Rod Perry is gone from the nose tackle position, but I fully expect someone like Calvin Avery to jump into that role. He played in 11 games and started two of those contests in 2021.
Illinois’ second and third levels of the defense shouldn’t miss a beat from the 2021 campaign either. We got Calvin Hart Jr. back healthy for this season. He pretty much won us the Nebraska game last year but went down with an injury.
Overall, the Illini are returning six out of their top eight leaders in tackles, six out of the top eight leaders in sacks, three out of the top five leaders in interceptions, and seven out of the top nine leaders in tackles for loss. This defense is poised to have another great year.