Nebraska Huskers Football Spring Opponent Review: Illinois
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Spring Opponent Review: Illinois

With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2021 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.

We start things off today by looking at Nebraska’s season and Big Ten-opener at Illinois on Aug. 28.

The Fighting Illini will have a new look this year, with former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema taking over the program.

We caught up with OrangeandBlueNews.com publisher Doug Bucshon to learn more about what the Huskers can expect from their first foe this fall.

Bret Bielema returned to the Big Ten to take over as Illinois' new head coach this offseason.
Bret Bielema returned to the Big Ten to take over as Illinois' new head coach this offseason. (Getty Images)

Spring overview

As with most college football coaching changes, this spring was quite the shakeup for Illinois under new head coach Bret Bielema.

While the Fighting Illini retained as much of its roster as any team in the Big Ten with 21 "super seniors" coming back, there was still a noticeably different vibe around the program.

Illinois is transitioning from a 4-3 defense under previous head coach Lovie Smith to Bielema's 3-4, and the offense is adapting to a power running style from a spread system.

As a result of the schematic shifts, the Illini also saw several position changes on both sides of the ball.

Three veteran defensive ends moved to outside linebacker, quarterback Isaiah Williams moving to wide receiver, and cornerback Marquez Beason went from cornerback to receiver.

The Illini return sixth-year senior starting quarterback Brandon Peters, who started five games and threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns last season. But the offense will revolve around a proven stable of running backs - led by all-conference Chase Brown - and a veteran offensive line.

The question for 2021, like most years, is whether Illinois defense will be able to stop anyone, especially while acclimating to a new defensive philosophy?

Returning starters

While much has changed this offseason for Illinois' program, it does have the luxury of having one of the most experienced rosters in the country.

The Illini's 21 returning "super seniors" were the most of any Power Five team in the country, giving Bielema and his staff an extremely veteran group to work with in 2021.

It will start up front, as the offensive line brings back right tackle Alex Palczewski, center Doug Kramer, and left tackle Vederian Lowe as starters. It also added former FCS All-American left guard Blake Jeresaty as a transfer from Wofford.

They lost 2020 All-American and first-team All-Big Ten guard Kendrick Green to the NFL, but the Illini still view the o-line as one of the team's top strengths.

Brown (540 yards and three touchdowns) could be a 1,000-yard back running behind that group, but UI also added Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden to join former four-star recruit Reggie Love in the backfield mix.

On defense, cornerbacks Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon and free safety Sydney Brown anchor a veteran secondary. There looks to be good talent on the defensive line with guys like end Jer'Zhan Newton and nose tackle Roderick Perry, but depth could be an issue in the front seven.

Linebacker Jake Hansen isn't the flashiest player, but he's been one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders.
Linebacker Jake Hansen isn't the flashiest player, but he's been one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders. (Getty Images)

Offensive star: TE Luke Ford

This was an interesting pick considering Luke Ford only caught two passes all of last season, but Bucshon said it had everything to do with his potential in Illinois' new offense.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior was the No. 1 tight end and the nation's No. 42 overall player in the 2018 class coming out of Carterville, Ill. He committed to Georgia out of high school but transferred to Illinois after one season.

He played eight games with two starts in his debut with the Illini, but targets came few and far between in UI's passing game.

In his first spring under Bielema, Bucshon said Ford looked every bit the player he was expected to be as a recruit and made numerous "wow" plays in practice.

It's expected that the tight ends will be heavily used in Illinois' new power offense, and Ford could in for a breakout year.

Defensive star: ILB Jake Hansen

Jake Hansen didn't participate in spring practices, but he's the heart and soul of Illinois defense this season.

Hansen received a waiver from the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility, giving the Illini another year with one of the most productive inside linebackers in the Big Ten.

The 6-1, 230 native of Florida led UI last season in tackles (68), tackles for loss (10.0), interceptions (2), pass breakups (2), and forced fumbles (2). He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts.

Not only did Hansen grade out as the nation's third-best tackler per PFF (90.8), but he also has an unbelievable knack for creating turnovers. Hansen's 10 career forced fumbles tie for third-most in program history, behind only Simeon Rice (13) and Whitney Mercilus (11).

Tight end Luke Ford caught two passes in 2020, but the Illini are expecting big things from him this season.
Tight end Luke Ford caught two passes in 2020, but the Illini are expecting big things from him this season. (Getty Images)

Spring surprise: NT Calvin Avery

Seeing how he is a former four-star Rivals250 recruit, it's hard to say Calvin Avery was a surprise this spring.

But after three modest seasons at Illinois, he caught plenty of attention with how well he fits in the defense's new 3-4 scheme.

Listed at 6-2, 335, the previous coaching staff had always pushed the fourth-year junior to drop his weight. But Avery looked like a prototype of what the Illini want as a 3-4 nose tackle this spring.

Conditioning will be a big question for him this season, but he showed good quickness and explosiveness for his size and could be the centerpiece of Illinois' defensive front.

Biggest question: Can the defense stop anyone?

The same question that has plagued Illinois for several years remains one of the biggest keys for 2021.

Though wide receiver is a potential concern, the offense should be good enough for the Illini to be competitive this season. But until the defense can find a way to slow down opponents, everything else won't matter.

While trying to adjust to a new system, UI had three projected starting linebackers miss all spring for various reasons.

Add that to depth issues on the line and secondary and several players acclimating to new positions, and the defense still has a lot of work to do not to be a complete liability this year.

Quarterback Brandon Peters is one of 21 "super seniors" coming back to Illinois this year, the most of any Power Five team.
Quarterback Brandon Peters is one of 21 "super seniors" coming back to Illinois this year, the most of any Power Five team. (Getty Images)

Early outlook on Illinois vs. Nebraska

Buchson: "It's a big question mark because of the entirely new coaching staff and system and players shuffling around. So we really don't know what to expect from Illinois.

"The positive for them is it's a home game, but I think Nebraska is going to be favored. I expect Illinois to go through some growing pains early in the season, and having that Nebraska game to open the season is not ideal for Illinois.

"So I would favor Nebraska in that game just because Illinois is just trying to get their feet wet with the new systems in place."

Overall 2021 win-loss expectation 

Buchson: "I think the goal for them this first year is to make a bowl game, and I think they're going to do that.

"The schedule is favorable for them, so I think they'll get to six wins. They have some teams on the schedule that, on paper, look like they should be easy wins.

"When they get to the Big Ten (schedule), they'll just have to win three games to get to a bowl game. So I think six wins is realistically what we're looking at for this year."