Feb. 10—CHAMPAIGN — The mini-streak came to an abrupt end in 2023. In his first two seasons as the Illinois football coach, Bret Bielema had a 1,000-yard rusher each year.
Fair to say a productive running game is important to the success of Bielema's teams. He has qualified for bowls in 11 of his 15 seasons as a head coach. All 11 teams included a 1,000-yard rusher.
For a defensive-minded head coach like Bielema, a running game means controlling the clock, which limits the amount of damage the imposing offense can inflict.
It's math. If I have the ball 38 minutes and you have it 22, you probably didn't score a lot.
Which brings me to 2023. Illinois opponents held a three-minute average edge in time of possession. That was a significant change from the 8-5 2022 team that held a five-minute advantage. Did it make a difference? Absolutely. Three wins worth of difference.
Had Brown put the NFL on hold for a year and returned for his final season at Illinois, the 1,000-yard streak would have continued. Barring injury. But that is out of the team's control.
Injuries were a huge negative for the Illinois running game in 2023 with Kaden Feagin, Reggie Love III and Josh McCray all missing time.
So, what it is going to happen in 2024? Here is how the position shapes up:
Projected starter: Feagin. The return of the Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond product diminishes the loss of Love, who transferred to Purdue.
Perhaps, Love saw the writing on the wall and realized if healthy, Feagin is Illinois' short- and long-term answer.
Feagin finished second on the team in rushing with 438 yards on 95 attempts, an average of 4.6 yards.
Feagin is returning from a shoulder injury that will limit his work in the spring. The coaches know what he can do when healthy and the job is his. But the sooner he can get back on the field to work with his teammates, the better. A punishing runner, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Feagin has the ability to be one of the all-time greats at Illinois.
McCray, Aidan Laughery, Ca'Lil Valentine. After an outstanding rookie year in 2021 when he gained 549 yards as a backup to Brown, McCray's last two seasons have been ruined by injuries. He played in just four games in 2022 and only five in 2023. The good news is he has preserved an extra year of eligibility.
Laughery, a Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley graduate, averaged 5.1 yards per carry in nine games in 2023. The question about Laughery is whether or not he has the size and durability to be an everydown back, with injuries a factor. He finished with 81 rushing yards on 16 carries in limited duty last season.
Speedy Valentine is one of the prizes of the 2024 Illinois recruiting class, a four-star recruit from Chandler, Ariz.
With a short stack of running backs, Valentine could see the field early. Bielema and offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. have shown a willingness to get freshmen in the game when they think they are ready.
Final analysis: Whoever said "You can never have too many running backs" must have had the 2023 Illinois football team in mind.
By the end of the season, Bielema and his coaches were dipping into the deep reserves. Had the team reached a bowl, it would have been interesting to see who would have received the bulk of the carries.
Like it or not, running back is a position where guys get banged up. With that in mind, expect Lunney and position coach Thad Ward to keep as many players in the rotation as possible.
Feagin certainly looks capable of heavy duty, but keeping him healthy is critical. So, maybe a few less carries, especially early in the season.
So far, Bielema hasn't reached into the transfer portal for a running back. The spring session will show him whether or not he needs to add another option.