‘It’s a great opportunity for them’

TAMPA, Fla. – Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said Monday’s ReliaQuest Bowl could be a springboard for his program into the 2023 season. That certainly could be true at a few positions.

With three of the team’s top stars opting out of Monday’s matchup against Mississippi State (8-4) to prepare for the NFL Draft — All-American running back Chase BrownAll-American cornerback Devon Witherspoon and All-Big Ten safety Sydney Brown — the Illini (8-4) will turn to more untested options at running back and in the secondary in their attempt at a ninth win.

But those players are also potentially the Illini’s top options at the position next season, so Monday could be a good glimpse into the future at both the offensive and defensive backfields.

“I think those guys are excited about their opportunity, and that’s what really, to be honest with you, these bowl games have turned into, that process for a lot of position groups,” Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. said. “And not necessarily just here but just across the country with guys getting their opportunity who have worked hard and helped us along the way.”

Illinois cannot replace Chase Brown, the leading power-five rusher (1,643 yards) entering the bowl season, with one player. A projected mid-round draft pick, Brown is the Illini’s best big-play threat and a workhorse.

But Illinois long has praised its depth at running back — a position at which Bielema has had a 1,000-yard rusher in 13 of his 14 seasons as Illinois head coach — and that will be put to the test on Monday against a Mississippi State defense that finished No. 13 in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN FPI.

Redshirt sophomore Reggie Love will likely assume a significant helping of touches out of the backfield. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound running back finished second on the team in rushing this season (277 yards, 4.7 yards per carry), and he rushed for a career-high 85 rushing yards and one touchdown in the Illini’s 41- 3 rout at Northwestern in the regular-season finale last month.

Sophomore Josh McCray, who missed nine games due to a knee injury this season, is also healthy and has been “100 percent involved” in bowl practices with Bielema saying on Thursday that McCray “looks pretty good.” While he had just 12 rushes for 39 yards this season, McCray ran for 549 yards (4.9 ypc) as a true freshman in 2021 and looked like a future No. 1 running back with two games of 140 or more rushing yards last season.

Both Love and McCray have the chance to show that they can anchor a successful rushing attack in the post-Chase Brown era.

“Obviously, Reggie what he’s done for us this past year and the way he stepped in when he had his opportunity, I mean, game after game, time after time, he made plays for us in critical spots,” Lunney said. “We know he’s ready to step up and take that role. It’s going to be good to have Josh back in the fold and be healthy, so I’m excited to see how that unfolds.”

Added Illini junior wide receiver Casey Washington: “Chase is obviously a great player. I would say generational. You’re not going to see another one of him for a while here. But we also have good backs. Reggie’s a really good player. When his name is called, he steps up. …Those guys are dogs. They come up, they show up every day and work, regardless of whether Chase is there or not. They’re just ready to compete. When the opportunity has come and their number is called, they make it happen.”

With Witherspoon and Sydney Brown choosing to sit out and starting cornerback Tahveon Nicholson still out with a wrist injury, what has been an elite Illini secondary will be vulnerable against Mississippi State’s prolific Air Raid passing attack, which ranks No. 8 among FBS teams in passing yards per game (314.3). Witherspoon and Brown combined for nine interceptions

The good news is that the Illini’s replacements at the position, while young, have already been tested this season.

Freshman safety Matthew Bailey played 113 snaps this season, mostly in the Illini’s dime package, and had two interceptions. Redshirt freshman cornerback Tyler Strain played significant snaps after Nicholson’s injury — 90 during the last month of the season — and had four passes defended and two interceptions. Freshman cornerback Xavier Scott also was thrown into the fire during the last three games, logging 75 defensive snaps in that three-game stretch, and he even forced a key fumble in a close loss at Michigan.

Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry added that freshmen Elijah Mc- Cantos, Prince Green and Kionte Curry all could receive reps on Monday as well.

“This experience is monumental,” Henry said. “At one point in time, Devon Witherspoon was a wide-eyed freshman. Sydney Brown was a wide-eyed freshman. Quan Martin was a wide-eyed freshman. Kendall Smith was a wide-eyed freshman running around. I think everybody knew they had ability, but I don’t know if everybody knew, ‘This kid is a potential first-round draft pick or a potential second- or third-round draft pick.’ Experience is key, man. A lot of these players, this is going to be their first time getting a lot of experience.

“I think moving forward throughout the course of the year, especially with players opting out, just turnover on your roster, you’ve got to get guys playing a little more, a little earlier, get them that confidence so when you’re in a game like this, our guys feel extremely (confident). Just DBs in general, all of those DBs think they’re the best thing since sliced ​​bread.”

Illinois did get a boost in the secondary when Quan Martin decided to play in the bowl game after considering opting out along with Witherspoon and Brown.

Martin, an All-Big Ten Second Team selection by the media and All-Big Ten Third Team selection by coaches, was among the national leaders in passes defended (14) and interceptions (3). Along with the sixth-year senior safety Kendall Smith (four interceptions), Martin also provides leadership on the back end for Monday’s big test.

“It’s been amazing just spending time with these young guys and coaching them up through the bowl game and seeing these guys develop throughout the season. Just being here with them means a lot,” Martin told the Illini Inquirer. “Coach Henry continues to talk about how this could be a starting point of their career. A lot of young guys will get their opportunity out there. When their name is called, I feel like they will show up. The standard has always been high just through the season and just talking with these guys throughout the week. They know the standard is high and know what to expect.”

Mississippi State has not had any players opt out, although a few important players – running back Dillon Johnson and leading wide receiver Rara Thomas – entered the transfer portal and will not play for the Bulldogs on Monday. So for both teams, players must step up into bigger roles to help lead their respective teams to a ninth win.

For Illinois, Monday will also provide an in-depth evaluation of its next chapter at running back and defensive back.

“All these young players, it’s a great opportunity for them,” Henry said. “At the end of the day, it’s football. Football is not hard. It’s not complicated. If you can run around, you can hit people and do your job, you can have a lot of success.”

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