COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Illini hope to start meeting expectations

Sep. 2—CHAMPAIGN — For the first time in 15 seasons, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team will begin its season following an appearance in a Jan. 1 bowl game.

Third-year coach Bret Bielema says he couldn't be more excited to get a season started.

"I know as a head coach I'm going into my 15th year, but every season it just a bit different," he said.

And what makes this season different for the Fighting Illini are the expectations.

A year ago, Illinois started the year 7-1, climbing as high as No. 14 in the AP Rankings. And while they won just once in their final five games, including a 19-10 loss to Mississippi State in the Reliaquest Bowl, season-ticket sales soared past 40,000.

Additionally, the Illini have a number of players already on postseason watch lists with defensive tackle Jer'Zhan Newton garnering a ton of interest, including being a guest on a Heisman pod cast.

"Some of these things are uncharted waters," Bielema admitted. "We are being very guarded about what our guys are hearing."

Bielema acknowledges that all of that attention can be very good for the program, but he is also quick to point out that the Illini's first opponent tonight, the Toledo Rockets, also have a large group of players on a number of preseason watch lists for awards.

"No. 7 (quarterback Daquan Finn) is a very dynamic and incredibly gifted athlete that makes good decision with the ball," Bielema said. "He can make something special on any given play. I always say that the greatest value of a great quarterback is someone that can make something of nothing ... he is very difficult to defend."

Toledo, under the direction of Jason Candle, went 9-5 last year winning the Mid-American Conference Championship and the Boca Raton Bowl, returns 16 starters, including seven all-conference selections.

"I'm very impressed with the success (Candle) has had. It doesn't come by chance," said Bielema as Candle is 54-32 in eight years with the Rockets. "He has really good players that play really good football. We preach that good football plays are a result of good fundamentals. It screams on their film all over the play how well they're coached and how well they are disciplined.

"This is a very difficult task in front of us, but one that I think our guys are excited to play."

There are three huge question marks for the Illini heading into their season opener.

Who starts at quarterback? Who will carry the football? And who will start in the defensive secondary.

Luke Altmyer, a transfer from Ole Miss, was selected as the Illinois starting quarterback two weeks ago, beating our John Paddock and Donovan Leary.

Replacing Chase Brown as the running back position will be the combination of Reggie Love III and Josh McCray. A year ago, they combined for just under 400 yards on 89 attempts.

"Reggie and Josh have grown a lot from a year ago," Bielema said. "They were both battling for that spot behind Chase and both of them had some injury setbacks."

The defensive secondary, which had three players drafted into the NFL and another sign as a free agent, will be led by Taz Nicholson, Miles Scott, Xavier Scott and Tyler Strain. Those four combined to play in 46 games a year ago.

Missing from that group is sophomore Matthew Bailey, who is still recovering from a foot injury.

While Bailey is expected to return this season, redshirt freshmen Malachi Hood, a linebacker, and Jordan Anderson, a running back, will miss the entire season. Hood with a Achilles tendon injury and Anderson with a knee injury.

One of the most interesting matchups tonight will be Newton from Illinois going against his brother, Toledo wide receiver Jerjuan Newton.

Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. The game seen on the Big Ten Network and heard on the Busey Bank Illini Sports Network, including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 (joined in progress after the Danville football game) and WDNL-FM 102.1.