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Illinois Spring Game Features Battle for Starting QB

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema takes the field fro the the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Raymond James Stadium.
© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Fighting Illini football team held their annual Spring game at Memorial Stadium on April 20 as they continued preparations for the season opener at home against Eastern Illinois. While any points scored were not tracked on the scoreboard, there were plenty of key takeaways we tracked for us to discuss.

Who is going to be the starting quarterback? Who is going to make plays at wide receiver? Will the defense be any good? Let's dive in and find out.

Structure of the Illinois Spring Game

While coach Bret Bielema referred to the game as the team's 15th practice, it was a controlled scrimmage between the offense and defense with the full rules documented below.

The game featured four 15-minute quarters with a running clock in the second half. With some players being moved around, the game primarily featured the first-team offense against the second-team defense and vice versa.

The most exciting, and surprisingly refreshing, aspect was that the game included live tackling, except on special teams and for the quarterbacks, who could not be hit. Many coaching staffs focus more on the risk of injury than on the continued development of their players received by playing real tackle football. Bielema should consider implementing some type of scoring system in future spring games to enhance competitiveness among the players.

Answers to Lingering Questions

Entering the 2023 season, the Illini were on the rise after completing a successful 8-5 season that ended with a 19-10 loss to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl. It was their first winning season since 2011, when they went 7-6, and the first time they had 8 victories or more since 2007. Unfortunately, the 2023 season saw Illinois regress to a 5-7 record, raising many questions for 2024.

As we approach the Illini's fourth season under Bielema, let's examine key questions and what answers we have now as a result.

Who is QB1?

Will it be junior Luke Altmyer, who transferred from Ole Miss in January 2023? A former four-star recruit from Mississippi, Altmyer started 9 games last year, finishing with 1,883 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Or will it be sophomore Donovan Leary, a three-star recruit from New Jersey who joined Illinois in the 2022 recruiting cycle? Leary, known mainly as the brother of former Kentucky and North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary, who is expected to be drafted in the later rounds of the NFL Draft starting April 26, has yet to see significant playing time.

Both quarterbacks performed well in the spring game with Altmyer completing 10-of-14 of his passes for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Leary was 13-for-23 for 207 passing yards and 2 touchdowns. Altmyer was efficient from the start, leading the offense to scores on three of the four drives he led in the first half. Leary, however, started slowly, with the offense punting on his first four drives, but he showcased his arm talent on the fifth series with a two-play drive that included a 42-yard reception to receiver Alexander Capka-Jones and a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Collin Dixon.

Altmyer is the more consistent and reliable quarterback to run the offense and protect the ball so he will be the starter for the opener. Bielema has said Leary has been impressive all spring and he has the better overall physical tools of the two QBs.

If Altmyer struggles to start the season, Bielema will have no hesitation in putting Leary in to see what he can do.

Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Luke Altmyer celebrates a touchdown pass.
© Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
Who Is Going to Make Plays at WR?

Illinois has significant production to replace at the wide receiver position, with Isaiah Williams (82 receptions, 1,055 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns) and Casey Washington (49 receptions, 670 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns) both departing. Senior Pat Bryant, with 43 receptions, 560 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns last season, is a reliable option for Illinois. The following players stood out in the spring as potential contributors:

  • Sophomore Malik Elzy: Elzy is a four-star recruit from Chicago who had limited production in his freshman year with 5 receptions for 52 yards and 1 touchdown. Elzy caught 6 passes for 85 yards in the spring game, including a 23-yard touchdown from Altmyer. It appears the game is mentally slowing down for Elzy, enhancing his on-the-field performance.

  • Junior Alexander Capka-Jones: Joined Illinois last year as a junior college transfer from Moorpark College in California, and redshirted. Capka-Jones used his 6-foot-4 frame to make impressive catches, including a 42-yard reception from Leary over cornerback Kaleb Patterson and a 40-yard reception over cornerback Grayson Griffin. Both were contested 50/50 balls that he competed for and won the battles. Capka-Jones finished with 4 receptions for a game-high 95 yards and a touchdown.

Looking forward, Bryant and Elzy are expected to be key playmakers, but questions remain about who else will emerge. Will Capka-Jones continue to develop and earn playing time? Other receivers to watch include junior Hank Beatty and sophomores Mario Sanders II and Ashton Hollins.

Is the Defense Going to Be Any Good?

After leading the Big Ten Conference in points allowed per game with 12.8 in 2022, the Illini experienced a significant increase in 2023, allowing 29.4 points per game and finishing 12th in the conference in that category. This drop was not unexpected, as Purdue hired away defensive coordinator Ryan Walters to be their head coach, and Illinois had three defensive players drafted in the first three rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft: cornerback Devon Witherspoon (No. 5 to Seattle), safety Jartavius Martin (No. 47 to Washington), and Sydney Brown (No. 66 to Philadelphia). Consequently, new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry had to rely on four true freshmen and two sophomores in the secondary alone last season.

A couple of last year's young secondary players, sophomores Saboor Karriem and Jaheim Clarke, stood out in the game. Karriem led the team with 7 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. Clarke, considered the fastest member of the secondary, showcased his speed by closing the gap and knocking away a slightly under thrown deep pass from Leary to a wide-open Hollins.

While the defense struggled last season, the Illini still face a significant challenge in replacing Jer'Zhan (Johnny) Newton on the defensive line. Newton, a first-team Associated Press All-American, first-team All-Big Ten and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is expected to be drafted in the first two rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft. Although the current defensive line showed effectiveness at times during the game, it is tough to assess them in a game like this where they are likely playing vanilla schemes and coverages being played behind them.

It’s difficult to predict the defense's performance based on this game alone. The assumption is the defense will have an inconsistent year due to its mix of talent and inexperience at many key positions. Illinois will need to rely on new additions to their coaching staff, such as outside linebackers coach Clint Sintim, to quickly make an impact and develop the younger players.

Illinois Spring Game Nuggets

  • Sophomore Kaden Feagin is expected to be the starting running back this year but did not play in the game.

  • Sophomore running back Aidan Laughery, who is 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, was impressive in the game. His speed—he ran a 10.5-second 100-meter dash in high school—will complement the other running backs who are much larger and play a more physical game.

  • Players seemed to adjust well to a couple of rule changes, including helmet communication and the use of tablets on the sidelines. Welcome to 21st-century of Big Ten football.

  • Senior offensive tackle J.C. Davis, a transfer from New Mexico and considered one of the top Group of 5 offensive linemen last year, definitely looked the part and should be a strong tackle for Illinois this year.


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