By most measures, the 2022 season was a good one for the Illinois football team.
The Illini finished 8-5 in coach Bret Bielema’s second year after 10 straight losing seasons, placed second in the Big Ten West, played in a bowl game for the first time since 2019 and had four NFL draft picks.
Losing four of the final five games, including the ReliaQuest Bowl against Mississippi State, left a sour taste.
“We’ve got a lot of unfinished business,” Bielema said. “But I like where we’re at. I love the influx of talent. I’ve never felt more engaged with our roster. I like the way the players are being developed and coached, and the way the players are reacting to our coaches.”
Receiver Isaiah Williams said this is the most confident team he’s been on in his five years at Illinois.
“But we also have a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “We had a good season last year, but we left a lot of wins out there.”
Williams came to Illinois as a quarterback. He switched to receiver after the 2020 season and has been the team’s No. 1 receiver the past two seasons. He had 82 receptions for 715 yards and five touchdowns last year.
“I’m way more confident in my abilities as a receiver now than when I first started,” he said. “I’m not just relying on my physical skills to gain separation. I’m better able to do it mentally too.”
Besides Williams, another Illini strength should be its offensive and defensive lines.
“We should be exceptional on both sides,” Bielema said.
The Illini are looking for a new quarterback. Mississippi transfer Luke Altmyer appears to have the upper hand over Donovan Leary, John Paddock and Kirkland Michaux.
Altmyer, who arrived in the spring, played in eight games over two seasons at Ole Miss and threw for 317 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He has three years of eligibility remaining.
Defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton is the first Illini player named to the Walter Camp Award preseason watchlist. He is one of seven defensive players selected to the 45-player list.
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Newton was a standout on the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense last season. He led the team in tackles for loss (14), sacks (5 1/2), quarterback hurries (11) and fumble recoveries (two), and was the only Big Ten defensive lineman to play at least 400 snaps.
Tip Reiman came to Illinois at a walk-on. The 6-5, 270-pound junior is now the starting tight end and is on the watchlist for the Mackey Award given to the nation’s top player at that position.
Already one of Illinois’ top blockers, Reiman wants to catch more passes. The two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree started all 13 Illini games last season and had 19 receptions for 174 yards and one touchdown.
Some 10,000 new season tickets were sold for the 2023 season. The purchaser of the 10,000th new season ticket was Tim King, who received a surprise FaceTime thank you call from Bielema and the Illini team.
King has attended Illinois home football games for years. His son, Nick, is a senior at Illinois and a member of the Marching Illini.
This is the most new season tickets purchased for Illini home football games since 2007, when 11,653 were sold.
The Illini open at home against Toledo on Sept. 2 and face a huge test two weeks later when No. 7 Penn State visits.
Other notable games include a home matchup with Wisconsin on Oct. 21 and trips to Purdue (Sept. 30), Minnesota (Nov. 4) and Iowa (Nov. 18). Illinois also hosts Northwestern on Nov. 25.