CHAMPAIGN — The 133rd season of Illini football kicks off Saturday afternoon in Champaign. Illinois hosts the Wyoming Cowboys in a game that will feature a lot of fresh faces on both sides of the field.
Head coach Bret Bielema revealed Thursday that his starting quarterback will be Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito, who won the job over back-up Art Sitkowski.
DeVito was the primary Syracuse quarterback in 2019, when he completed 63% of his passes (213-337) for 2,360 yards and 19 touchdowns (and five interceptions). He redshirted his freshman year, and sat for most of 2020 with an injury before losing the starting job in 2021.
Offense is the question mark for Illinois. The Illini defense shone last year under first-year coordinator Ryan Walters, who earned a raise and a three-year contract extension following a season which saw Illinois shut down opposing quarterbacks, leading the Big Ten in passing yards allowed.
During Thursday’s ten-minute briefing with local reporters, Bielema said his staff had finalized the starters for his offensive line. Anchored by academic All-Big Ten center Alex Pihlstrom, and captained by sixth-year (and three time All-Big Ten) right tackle Alex Palczewski, the Illini front line is enormous. Every player is six and a half feet tall, and each weighs more than 300 pounds.
Sophomore transfer Zy Crisler is the starting right guard. Junior college transfer Isaiah Adams will be the left guard. Julian Pearl — who started 11 games last season and played predominantly on the right side of the line — returns at the blind-side tackle position, taking over for stalwart blocker Vederian Lowe, who is now playing for the Minnesota Vikings.
Bielema said Jordyn Slaughter, who was injured for the entire 2021 season, will likely see many snaps against the Cowboys, perhaps at various positions on the line.
Sitkowski guided the Illini to a win over Nebraska in last season’s opener, also as the second-stringer. Starter Brandon Peters left that game early with a shoulder injury, allowing Sitkowski to complete 12-of-15 passes, including two touchdowns. But Sitkowski himself suffered a season-ending injury, breaking his left (non-passing) arm during Illinois’s 9OT win at Penn State.
Wyoming was picked to finish second in the Mountain West last year, but managed only a 2-6 conference record. Playing a weak non-conference schedule allowed them to eke out a 7-6 campaign, capped by a 52-38 drubbing of Kent State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Wyoming at Illinois kicks off at 3 pm Central on the Big Ten network.
Rob McColley covers University of Illinois sports for Illinois Public Media.