Whole Nine Sports

Key Illini Players 

Justin Gielow
Follow Justin @Justin_G86
Follow Whole Nine Sports @WholeNineSports

The Illini are coming off one of their best seasons in over 5 years as they finished the season with a 6-6 record and a bowl appearance. Head coach Lovie Smith is entering his 5th season as the Illini head coach and is looking to build the Illini into a contender in the Big Ten West and hopefully guide the Illini to a Big Ten Championship. Illini will be losing 6 players on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Offensive players the Illini lost was grad transfer Richie Petitbon, two running backs in Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown and wide receiver Caleb Reams. Losing players like Jamal Milan, Dele Harding, and Oluwole Betiku Jr hurt the defense, but they have plenty of returning players to make instant impacts. I want to highlight some key Illini players that will are returning and looking to make the Illini even better this year. 

Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe had a huge impact on the Illini receiving core last year after his transfer from USC. He has great hands, great speed and his route running ability is why he is the best wide receiver in the Illini roster. In his junior season Imatorbhebhe accumulated 634 receiving yards and 9 touchdowns to lead the Illini. His best game of the year came against Michigan St where he had a career high 178 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns leading the Illini to a thrilling come from behind win. Josh missed the last three games of the year with an injury. The 20/21 season will be the second and final year in Orange and Blue for Josh and he will be asked to lead the receiving group and carry the load. With another year under Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith scheme and having starting quarterback Brandon Peters back for his senior season Imatorbhebhe will look to break Illini receiving records and showcase his talents for the next level. Look for Imatorbhebhe to garner most of the attention which should help other receivers to have breakout year. 

Tight End Luke Ford chose Georgia over Illinois in 2018 which left the Illini faithful upset about one of their best in-state players leave. Fast forward to 2019 Luke left Georgia because of his sick Grandpa in Illinois who was ill, and who he wanted to be close to. Ford had put in a hardship waiver to the NCAA to get an immediate eligibility to play for the Illini but that was denied. Surprise! Now a sophomore Ford will have the opportunity to play for his hometown team in front of his family with his Grandpa looking down. Ford appeared in nine of the 14 games for the Bulldogs with just one catch back in 2018. He has been with the Illini since spring of ‘19 and has had plenty of time to work on his chemistry with Peters and the offense. He will be a red zone target for the offense and will have the ability to open the offense up for others. I can also see him having big play ability down the middle of the field as well. 

Jake Hansen was an absolute beast for the Illini defense which had adopted an attitude of their head coach “Lovie Ball.” Hansen plays Linebacker for Illinois and will be a senior this year will be looking to make his final year in Champaign an unforgettable one. Hansen lead the nation in forced fumbles (7) and had 3 forced fumbles which was fifth best in the nation and to boot was a Butkus Award Semifinalist. Hansen and the Illini defense lead the NCAA with 6 defensive touchdowns and were in the top 5 in forced turnovers. The Illini will be looking to continue the “Lovie Ball” mantra in the 20/21 

season, Hansen will be at the forefront and will to be looked upon as the leader for the Illini defense. He could quite possibly lead the team in tackles this year, take home some hardware for himself and the Illini. 

Now Marquez Beason hasn’t been on the field for the Illini after tearing his ACL in the spring of 2019. His impact will be instant and monumental once gameday arrives. Beason came to the Illini as a highly touted four-star cornerback out of Texas. He is one of the best recruits in recent Illinois history. The defense is only losing one cornerback due to eligibility this year. Beason will be put into a spot to start immediately and be looked upon to contribute as a redshirt freshman. With having more than a full to recover from his injury Marquez is sure to be familiar with his defensive teammates and scheme. The competition will sure be a true test for Beason has the he will be facing Big Ten talent all year long. Yes, Beason will have his struggles, but he will find his footing as the year continues and be a great defensive player. 

With the Illini bringing back many other starters for the 20/21 season, they should be a contender and hopefully going back to a bowl game if there are any this year. This season is going to be unique and unlike any other. Playing all Big Ten teams’ week in and week out will be a test every week for the Illini and every other Big Ten team. My self and other Illini fans can’t wait for October 3rd