COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Brett Bielema sees improvement during spring practices

Apr. 23—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois junior quarterback Luke Altmyer knows that Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium will have no bearing on the 2024 season for the Fighting Illini, but that doesn't mean if was an important day for the team.

"It was practice 15," he said. "I know everyone say this was a spring game, but at the end of the day, it was practice 15. We were trying to get a lot out of it, trying to learn, trying to be efficient in what we were doing.

"It was fun to be out there and it was good to score a few touchdowns."

Altmyer, playing with the No. 1 offense, was 10-of-14 passing for 116 yards and two touchdowns in a spring game where an actual score was not kept.

The NCAA allows every school 15 practices in the spring semester and nearly every team ends it's spring with an intra-squad scrimmage.

So, while Altmyer seemingly had a good day for the Illini, it came against the Illinois defense, which wasn't allowed to hit any of the quarterbacks, and they basically played a very basic coverage scheme.

"I thought we played pretty clean all spring. To go out today the way we did was awesome," said Illinois coach Brett Bielema, noting the Illini had only a few minor injuries during the five-week spring practice schedule. "(I) was really excited to see our quarterbacks interact with the defense coming at them, probably as live as we had all spring I thought we protected the ball well.

"Defensively, I thought we tackled pretty well. Overall pretty excited."

Backup quarterback Donovan Leary was 13-of-23 for 207 yards and two scores, while incoming freshman Trey Petty was 3-of-9 for 36 yards and a score.

But, according to Bielema, it was a play that didn't fully show up in the stats that impressed him the most.

On a fourth down play, Altmyer had a play called for him where he could either take a shot for a big play or a shorter route, the junior transfer from Ole Miss went to the shorter route that still picked up the first down.

"I really like his awareness of the game around him," Bielema said. "I think he has grown a lot. His composure in the huddle is better.

"I think he missed a couple of throws early on, but he made the adjustment."

Bielema noted the Leary has also been really impressive this spring and he was pleased with Petty.

The Illinois quarterbacks were basically working with a new group of receivers.

Sophomore Malik Elzy, who had 5 receptions for 52 yards in his freshman season, was the top guy on Saturday snagging six of 10 targeted passes for 85 yards and a touchdown.

"Malik made some nice plays today," Bielema said. "I thought he had a couple of drops, but those are things to work on."

Another area that was a little depleted on Saturday was the running back position. Jordan Anderson and Kaden Feagin were out with injuries, so Aidan Laughery, a sophomore from Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, and Josh McCray handled the majority of the carries. Laughery had 70 yards on 11 attempts, while McCray managed just 21 yards on nine carries but he scored the only rushing touchdown.

"The light bulb really came on during winter workout and we've seen it carry over," Bielema said about Laughery. "He and Josh have carried the majority of the workload all spring.

"Jordan is right on the verge of being with jus and Kaden as well. I feel really good about that room and I like where it's going."

And the potential success of the quarterbacks, receivers and running backs will be directly related to the Illinois offensive line, which lost both starting offensive tackles. Former Danville standout Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams are possible draft picks this weekend into the NFL and the Illini have added a couple of transfers in J.C. Davis from New Mexico and Melvin Priestly from Grambling State to go along with guys like Josh Kruetz, Hunter Whitenack, Zy Crisler, Josh Gesky and Brandon Henderson.

"I think our offensive line, tackle-to-tackle in the two deep is probably as good as we've had it," said Bielema, who has spent the past two seasons trying to solidify that group. "I like their growth."

Defensively, Illinois will go into next season with a new front as Jer'Zhan 'Johnny' Newton could be a first-round draft pick this week and Keith Randolph Jr. figures to hear his name on the third day.

On Saturday, the leading tacklers for the Illini were sophomore defensive back Saboor Karriem and redshirt freshman linebacker JoJo Hayden with 7 each, while redshirt freshman linebacker Pat Farrell had five tackles and one of his team's two sacks.

Another area needing to be replaced for Illinois is its kicker. Danville's Caleb Griffin, who had a pair of game-winning kicks last year for the Illini, has exhausted his eligibility. Sophomore David Olano is expected to take his spot this coming fall.

Bielema noted that Illinois has lost a few players this spring to transfer portal and he believes they will add a few players in the coming weeks.

"That opens scholarship opportunities to work into this year's number," Bielema said. "Fortunate part for us is anyone that has gone into the portal have been backups for us.

"I understand they are looking for opportunities to get onto the field."

Opportunities is also how he view this spring for the Illini.

"We get 15 opportunities to get better and I want to take advantage of every one of them," he said. "Two weeks ago on a Tuesday, I didn't think we had a great practice and I let them feel it a little bit."

Bielema noted it was a day that Illinois couldn't get back, but he thought they learned from that and made the most of their remaining days.

"It was good to get out healthy and get a better understanding of our roster," he said.

Illinois will open the 2024 season at home on Thursday, Aug. 29, against the Eastern Illinois Panthers.