Top players Illinois’ football team has returned in 2023, plus those who declared for the NFL draft

By Anderson Kimball Decatur (Ill.) Herald & Review

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois’ football team wrapped up most of its signing class last month, but that wasn’t the most important recruiting of the offseason.

With multiple players having the option to return for an extra season of Eligibility allowed by the COVID-19 Pandemic or leave for the NFL draft, Illinois had the potential to lose a large portion of its roster from last season.

It had key departures from graduation in Alex Palczewski, Sydney Brown and others, with some key players deciding to stick around for next season.

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Here’s who is returning, and who declared for the NFL draft with Eligibility remaining.

Returning Illini

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz is sacked by Illinois defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. (88) and teammate Jer’Zhan “Johnny” Newton (4) on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Madison, Wisc.

Kayla Wolf, AP Photo

Defensive lineman Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph.

The Law Firm will be practicing in Champaign for another season, after Newton and Randolph announced Jan. 16 that they are returning. Both have become lynchpins to the defense in the past two years and would have had opportunities in the NFL had they decided to declare for the draft.

Newton broke out as an All-Big Ten selection this season and would have been a virtual lock to be selected in the draft. He could improve his stock with another productive season after having 5½ sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2022.

Randolph has prototypical size at 6-foot-5 and had 4½ sacks, 13 tackles for loss and an interception opposite Newton at defensive end while being named third-team all-conference. His size and tools will give him a good chance to rise up the draft boards for 2024 with Newton.

Linebackers Seth Coleman, Calvin Hart Jr. and Tarique Barnes.

Illinois Northwestern Football

Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes smiles as he holds the Land of Lincoln Trophy after Illinois defeated Northwestern 41-3 in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

Nam Y. Huh, AP photo

The return of the Law Firm with Coleman, Hart Jr. and Barnes means Illinois returns seven starters from last year’s team that led the country in scoring defense.

Coleman pairs with freshman All-American Gabe Jacas to form a pass-rush duo that flashed potential last season. Both were first-year starters and ended the year as Big Ten Honorable mention selections. Coleman had 4½ sacks and five tackles for loss while Jacas had four sacks and five tackles for loss.

Barnes and Hart each got starts at inside linebacker, with Barnes being a Captain and a player whose IQ was a big piece to the defense. He developed a propensity to time up the opponent’s snap counts as the year went on, and that helped him finish with 46 tackles, 8½ of them for a loss.

Hart began the season as the starter opposite Barnes but ended up losing a lot of snaps to Isaac Darkangelo as the year went on. Hart finished with 22 tackles in his first season back from an ACL tear.

Wyoming Illinois Football

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito drops back to pass as Offensive lineman Julian Pearl protects during the first half of a game against Wyoming on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Champaign, Ill.

Charles Rex Arbogast, AP photo

Illinois loses starters Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom but returns the other four linemen in their rotation from last season with Zy Crisler, Pearl, Adams and Slaughter.

Pearl started at left tackle while Adams and Crisler started at the guard spots. Slaughter was tabbed as the “sixth man” by Illinois Coach Bret Bielema and played in all 13 games this season, starting against Wyoming in place of Pearl.

Pearl will start at left tackle again next season, with Adams possibly moving out to right tackle while Slaughter and Crisler play at the guard spots. One of those players could also play center, with Illinois planning to have transfer Avery Jones start there before he decommitted and transferred to Auburn instead.

Returning young linemen such as Josh Gesky or Hunter Whitenack, who played mostly on special teams, could step into the mix as well as junior college transfer Dez’Mond Schuster. Schuster comes from the same junior college conference as Adams and was an all-conference selection, and junior college transfers Adams and Crisler each contributed quickly in their first seasons in Champaign.

Receivers Isaiah Williams, Casey Washington.

Illinois Northwestern Football

Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Williams, left, runs against Northwestern defensive back Rod Heard II in a game on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Evanston, Ill.

Nam Y. Huh, AP Photo

Illinois returns two of its top receivers in Williams and Washington.

Williams, a St. Louisan from Trinity Catholic, had a team-high 82 receptions for 715 yards and five scores while Washington had 31 catches for 306 yards. Williams is the first Illinois receiver with more than 700 yards in a season since 2016, and that came in just his second season as a wide receiver after arriving in Champaign as a quarterback.

He’ll lead the receiver room and likely be a Captain for the second straight season while being a key Weapon for transfer quarterback Luke Altmyer.

Griffin was the starter for most of the season, missing the game against Iowa because of an injury, and he finished 11th in the Big Ten Conference in field-goal accuracy at 73.7% (14 for 19). His 52-yard field goal in the ReliaQuest Bowl made him the kicker with the fourth-longest field goal in the Big Ten, and he finished the season making 10 of his last 11 field-goal attempts.

With the addition of Scholarship kicker David Olano, the fifth-ranked kicker in the 247sports composite for the 2023 class who also played in the All-American Bowl, Griffin will have some competition for the starting job in 2023.

Declaring for the NFL draft

Running back Chase Brown, cornerback Devon Witherspoon.

Illinois Michigan Football

Illinois running back Chase Brown carries the ball against Michigan on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Paul Sancy, AP photo

Brown and Witherspoon are almost certain to hear their names called in April’s NFL draft.

Witherspoon has been consistently projected as a first-round pick after an All-American season in which he was named the Big Ten’s top defensive back. The latest mock draft has him as the No. 6 pick to the Lions, who drafted Illinois star defensive back Kerby Joseph last season. The latest CBS mock draft projects him as the No. 16 pick, to Washington.

Brown led Power Five conference teams in rushing during the regular season and finished fourth in the FBS in rushing this season after opting out of the team’s Bowl game. along with Witherspoon and his brother Sydney.

Sydney Brown is projected to be a mid-to-late round selection after being a five-year starter for the Illini. Chase is projected to be selected in the fourth or fifth round.

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball


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