Bob Asmussen | Change seems to be a constant for Illinois football

Feb. 8—CHAMPAIGN — After a busy last month, Bret Bielema met with the press Wednesday. There was plenty to talk about.

The fourth-year Illinois football coach Bielema covered all sorts of topics at the Smith Center.

In 28 minutes, he discussed recruiting, staffing, the good works of his players and more.

Too bad the session didn't last a bit longer.

Shortly after Bielema's talk ended, the New York Giants announced the hiring of Illinois outside linebackers coach Charlie Bullen to the same position with the team.

That is the fourth change on the Illinois staff since the end of the 2023 season. Bielema dismissed cornerbacks coach Antonio Fenelus and linebacker coach Andy Buh. Last week, wide receivers coach George McDonald took a job at Mississippi.

Bielema filled one of the open positions by hiring David Gibbs as defensive backs coach and associate head coach. Gibbs also talked with reporters on Wednesday before Bielema. The two are longtime friends. (More on their relationship on Friday).

Bielema has visited with several potential assistants on campus, including two Wednesday with more coming in this weekend.

"My intent and goal was to have somebody up and running at the positions by Monday," he said. "I think we're on task. I expect to probably have a receivers coach here sooner than later."

On the inside linebacker position vacated by Buh, Bielema said, "I'm in a little bit of a holding pattern. There's one guy I want to talk to who isn't available until later this week."

Why did Bielema make the changes?

"Two-fold really," he said. "I realized where we are and where I wanted us to go. Obviously, no negative. Both the guys that I relieved, one was a former player, one was a former coach. I think the world of them and their families. Just felt that we needed to have some change on that side of the ball."

Immediately after the season, Bielema said he didn't plan any staff changes. But ...

"I just didn't broadcast it with you guys," Bielema said. "I think I probably knew at some point and the people involved, I had those conversations. I really wanted to take a moment and process where I was at."

Looking back, then ahead

Bielema took time Wednesday to congratulate former Illini Devon Witherspoon, who earned a spot in the Pro Bowl as a Seahawks rookie.

Another rookie, Eagles safety Sydney Brown, had his season end with a knee injury. Bielema and Brown talked shortly after he got hurt.

Bielema is paying attention to the Super Bowl. He knows people. Former Illini Nick Allegretti is in the Super Bowl with the Chiefs ... again. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw of the 49ers played for Bielema at Arkansas. So did Brandon Allen, one of the backups to quarterback Brock Purdy.

"Kind of a neat thing to watch," Bielema said."All those guys get where they need to be."

And there are more former Bielema players on the way to the NFL. The coach said six Illini have been invited and accepted invites to the NFL combine from Feb. 26-March 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtwon Indianapolis: Isaiah Adams, Johnny Newton, Julian Pearl, Keith Randolph Jr., Tip Rieman and Isaiah Williams.

In the fold

Illinois added a single player during Wednesday's national signing day: defensive back Tanner Heckel from Lyndon, Kan.

"We got word of him in December, sent a couple coaches over," Bielema said.

Bielema didn't want to let other schools know he was interested in Heckel, a three-sport standout at a school that plays eight-man football.

"We kept it under wraps," Bielema said.

Bielema showed video of Heckel to the media.

"A dynamic player in a lot of different ways on the football field," Bielema said. "He has a lot of really good instincts."

Heckel played cornerback, safety and quarterback as a senior.

Bielema plans to use him at safety.

In basketball, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder can dunk with ease. In one recent game, he had four dunks in the first half.

"Really excited about Tanner," Bielema said.

Moving on

Illinois early signee Josaiah Knight, a defensive end from Florida, is instead going to Mississippi State.

"He wanted to be here," Bielema said. "But that wasn't going to be possible."

Up in the air

After not being hired as Wisconsin's permanent head coach following the 2022 season, Jim Leonhard spent 2023 at Illinois as an analyst. What is his current status?

"We signed him with the idea if he wants to do this, then it would be open to come back to him," Bielema said. "He and I have had a milllion conversations. Not about the job. Jimmy's a guy I like bouncing things off of. He literally sent a report a couple weeks ago that was incredibly detailed and great ideas and thoughts."

Leonhard has "irons in the fire."

Widening map

With the addition of Oregon, Washington and two California schools to the Big Ten, does it change where Illinois will recruit?

At this point, not really.

"We're going to focus on the state of Illinois," Bielema said. "Really concentrating on some border states. We've really done a lot in New Jersey and a lot in Florida. I would say that's a blueprint of what we are."