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Watch now: Three questions for Illinois football ahead of the 2022 season | Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois kicks off its season in less than four days, with the Illini gearing up for Wyoming on Saturday.

Illinois will have a new season-opening starting quarterback after the departure of Brandon Peters, with his replacement either being Tommy DeVito or Art Sitkowski.

Here are some questions ahead of the Illini’s 2022 season:

Does the passing game take a step forward?

Gaining yards through the air consistently was the Illini’s biggest challenge in 2021, and the addition of offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. and Syracuse transfer quarterback DeVito were both made with that in mind.

For Illinois to make a bowl game, the passing offense needs to help out a run game that had some good moments last season with backs Chase Brown and Josh McCray. Those backs ran into a lot of stacked boxes from defenses. In a scheme that is more spread out with variation in formations, that space could in theory open up the run game.

The coaching staff has confidence in the returning receivers and the development of Casey Washington, Pat Bryant, Brian Hightower and other younger targets who will pair with Isaiah Williams.

In camp it seemed like a spread out passing attack is taking that step forward.

“In the two scrimmages, and then the mock game (this fall), and what we’ve been able to do against the Wyoming scout, the way we’re able to spread them out a little bit and spit the ball out, feed the ball inside, it’s fun.” Brown said. “They can’t just play our backfield they’re going to have to play against our talented receivers as well.”

Who becomes the outside receiving threat?

Washington was the only wide receiver besides Williams to have over 200 receiving yards in 2021. Bryant got limited snaps while Hightower was a healthy scratch for parts of the season before taking a redshirt year.

Two of those three, or a mix including transfer Jonah Morris or freshman Shawn Miller, will be thrust into significant snaps.

No matter who it is, there is confidence in that group to bounce back after a year where the passing offense struggled in 2021. Bryant said the pass catchers are running a wider variety of routes as opposed to the system last season.

“I’d say we’ve grown a lot, just being more physical receivers,” Bryant said. “In the room we’ve got a lot of huge and big receivers.

Who replaces the lost starters in the secondary?

Losing All-American safety Kerby Joseph and corner Tony Adams to the NFL has left a couple of holes to fill in the secondary.

The favorites to fill those are safety Kendall Smith and corner Taz Nicholson, with a battle at corner happening between Nicholson, Terrell Jennings and younger corners Tyson Rooks and Tyler Strain.

Nicholson and Jennings each have collegiate experience — Jennings as a transfer from Division II Minnesota State. They’ll headline a battle where the team is looking for playmakers and ballhawks who helped the secondary take a step forward last season.

“We don’t like almost guys or nearby guys — guys who are always close to the ball or close quarters but they’re never making plays on the ball,” defensive backs coach Aaron Henry said. “… We just want guys who are constantly competing and going to put themselves in position to make plays.”

Rooks has been a quick-rising true freshman who won the competition of having the most interceptions in fall camp. He started his football career as a senior in high school last fall before rapidly putting himself on the Division I radar.

At 6-foot-4, he’s the biggest corner Henry has ever coached and could be a depth piece that gets on the field sooner rather than later.

PHOTOS: Illinois football headshots 2022

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