Game day preview | Illinois at Kansas; 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

Sep. 8—Beat writer Scott Richey previews the Illini's first road game of the year ahead of Friday's 6:30 p.m. kickoff at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan.

Three big storylines

Shuffling offensive linemenTraining camp competition — exclusively on the right side of the offensive line — propelled Illinois into its season opener against Toledo with a set starting five. Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams had the left side of the line locked down, Josh Kreutz, albeit a first-year starter, claimed the center spot and Josh Gesky and Zy Crisler manned the right side.

Then the circumstances of that game necessitated change. Crisler went down with cramps, pushing Adams to right tackle and bringing in Jordyn Slaughter to left guard. Then Gesky was hit with cramping issues and Adams suffered a knee injury, which opened the door for Zach Barlev, Hunter Whitenack and Brandon Henderson.

Illinois should be back to its regular starters Friday night at Kansas. The only question was Adams, and every scan of his knee came back negative earlier this week.

"All the news has been very, very positive," Illinois coach Bret Bielema said about Adams' negative scans. "You have to wait to get certain tests done, and then everything was very positive. Monday was a really big day for him. I think he felt a lot better and, obviously, got the information on the test results. Once your body tells you you're feeling OK and you start moving, that's when he feels good. He's been awesome."

Targeting tight ends?The first drive of the season made it seem like this might be the year — finally — Illinois got its tight ends involved more in the offense. Tip Reiman caught the first pass of the year from Luke Altmyer for a 17-yard gain and a first down. Five plays later, Altmyer and Reiman hooked up for a 16-yard gain and another first down.

That was the last pass Reiman caught, and no tight end was even targeted, Reiman included, during the rest of what turned into a 30-28 Illini victory against Toledo. Offensive snaps in general were few and far between for other tight ends, with Griffin Moore getting some late run and Henry Boyer used exclusively as a blocker.

"I think a lot of it was the way the game unfurled in a funky way," Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. said. "But (Reiman) got off to a fast start, and that's awesome. That's something that we need from him to be able to control the flats and catch pop passes and be in the seams to supplement our run game. That was good to get him off to a good start."

Mix-and-match linebackersSome versatility in Illinois' linebacker room gives defensive coordinator Aaron Henry the ability to move those guys between the two positions (middle linebacker and weakside linebacker) they fill on the field. Kenenna Odeluga mostly operates as a weakside linebacker. Two-time team captain Tarique Barnes is back at middle linebacker. Dylan Rosiek can play either spot and did so in last week's game against Toledo, which included using the redshirt sophomore as a "spy" on quarterback Dequan Finn.

"(Finn) is probably one of the most athletic quarterbacks we'll see this year," Rosiek said. "We're obviously going up against two athletes (for Kansas), as well. (Slowing them down) is reading the quarterbacks hips. It's taking good angles. ... They do a lot of eye candy. They've got the two quarterbacks and they've got good (running backs). It's going to be a tough game, but we can handle them as long as we do our job."

Two key matchups

Illinois defense vs. Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels

Unless it's the Illinois defense versus Jason Bean. The Jayhawks' backup was elevated to QB1 in their season-opening win against Missouri State and completed 22 of 28 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing five times for 41 yards. Bean might be tough enough. Daniels, who dealt with back tightness all through Kansas' training camp, is still a more significant challenge and is expected to play Friday. Not terrific news for Illinois given Daniels is the better version of Finn, who gave the Illini fits last week with his dual-threat ability.

Illinois running backs vs. sagging expectations

Altmyer leading Illinois in rushing in Week 1 was, not to put too fine a point on things, rather unexpected. That level of production in the run game from the Illini quarterback was necessary, with neither Reggie Love III nor Josh McCray really getting established in the season opener. A somewhat stark reminder that Chase Brown is now in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals. Bielema has maintained from the first day he arrived at Illinois that his best offenses have been balanced between the run and pass, but he's mostly been synonymous with successful rushing attacks. Love or McCray — or maybe Aidan Laughery or Kaden Feagin — need to give the Illini something on the ground.

One stat that matters

Six. It's the number of Division III championships Lance Leipold won at Wisconsin-Whitewater. In eight seasons. With a runner-up finish in there, too. That success broke up the stranglehold Mount Union (Ohio) had on D-III football and put Leipold in position to move up to the FBS level. He flipped Buffalo from 7-17 in his first two seasons (after inheriting a disaster) to 30-16 with three bowl game appearances in his final four years with the Buffaloes. And Kansas (another disaster) went from 2-10 in his first season as coach to 6-7 a year ago.

Illinois will win if

... its defense looks more like the group that drove some real preseason hype and less like the group that both got carved up by Toledo and generated penalty after penalty. The biggest concern, which flew in the face of that same preseason hype, came with the Illini's front seven. A still mostly inexperienced secondary was solid in the season opener, with former walk-on wide receiver Miles Scott earning Co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors in his first start at free safety. The preseason All-Americans? The experienced edge rushers? They were the ones that struggled against Toledo, and they're the ones that can't Friday night in Lawrence.

Kansas will win if

... it can turn Friday night's game into a shootout. Illinois would seem to have a better chance to hang with the Jayhawks in that scenario with Altmyer running the show, but it's not Bielema's preference. It is for Leipold in Kansas in the defense-is-a-secondary-concern Big 12. Jayhawks defensive coordinator Brian Borland has vowed to put a more effective group on the field in 2023, but having a top-20 scoring offense alleviates some of that burden.