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Bob Asmussen | Williams leaving big shoes to fill in Illini receivers room

Feb. 3—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois coach Bret Bielema was hoping to keep Isaiah Williams around for one more season. No such luck.

Instead of trying to break David Williams' record for career receptions and yards, Williams will instead try to break into the NFL.

He spent this week at the East-West Shrine Bowl in Frisco, Texas. The game was Thursday night and he caught two passes for 12 yards after he was targeted four times in the passing game for the East team in its 26-11 loss to the West team.

Though Williams is off the Illinois roster in 2024, he left an impression. His work ethic and attitude helped the guys who remain. And figures to have a positive impact on Barry Lunney Jr.'s offense.

While balance is what Bielema wants from his offense, it works a lot better when the passing game is zipping the team down the field.

Bielema and Lunney have the hardest part figured out: quarterback. Luke Altmyer is the unquestioned No. 1 and is set for a big season. If he gets enough help.

Yes, Williams moving on hurts. But there are plenty of talented options.

One other question that needs to be answered in the coming weeks: who is coaching the receivers in 2024. Former Illini and three-year assistant George McDonald left this week for Mississippi, where he will be the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator for Rebels coach Lane Kiffin. Bielema vows to bring in a top assistant. But no matter who it is, he won't have the institutional knowledge of McDonald.

Lunney and returning tight ends coach Robby Discher will need to help with the transition.

The two deep

Projected starters: receivers Pat Bryant, Mario Sanders, Malik Elzy. Tight end Cole Rusk.

With Williams and Casey Washington gone, Bryant's production should double. He caught 43 passes for 560 yards and seven scores. His per-catch average was actually better than Williams.

Bryant is a tough guy who has improved each season. He will relish the idea of being the go-to player. He already has a solid connection with Altmyer.

Sanders was one of the top-ranked junior college receivers in the nation at Iowa Central Community College. He caught 72 passes for 942 yards and 12 touchdowns. Elzy had just five catches in nine games as a rookie. A full offseason will do his mind and body wonders.

Rusk, an FCS All-American at Murray State, was brought in to be the starter at tight end. He is from the state and a longtime Illinois fan. He will have his own rooting section at home and on the road.

receivers Ashton Hollins, Hank Betty, Carlos Orr, Alex Capka-Jones, Tysean Griffin, Collin Dixon, Eian Pugh. Tight ends Tanner Arkin, Griffin Moore, Henry Boyer, Tanner Hollinger.

Hollins made the most of his time on the field in 2023 and could move into the starting lineup. He will be a part of the receiver rotation after grabbing nine passes last season.

Griffin joins the team after playing for former Illini receiver Chris James at Chicago Morgan Park. James knows the difficulty of playing early in college, but his history and guidance will be a plus for Griffin. At tight end, Moore wasn't far behind last year's starter Tip Reiman in catches and yards.

Final analysis

Bryant is a star in the making, a good bet to be the team's top all-conference candidate.

For the offense to avoid being one-dimensional, Sanders, Elzy, Hollins and Rusk must provide consistent production. Otherwise, the unit will find itself relying on the run game led by former Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond standout Kaden Feagin and Josh McCray, who are both returning from injuries.

Williams topped 1,000 yards last season and Bryant has a chance to hit that number, too. The key is to find two or three more receivers who can catch 40-50 passes for 400-plus yards and a handful of scores.