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Watch now: Bielema discusses rule changes, new advantage for Illini football

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Charlotte Illinois Football

Illinois defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. (88) is among the established players the Illini will depend on defensively.

CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema has been pounding the table for a change in scholarship structure in college football.

This spring he finally got his wish when the NCAA took away the limit of adding 25 scholarship players in a given class, instead just keeping a limit of 85 total scholarships on a roster.

That means more flexibility in a time of players taking additional COVID seasons and entering the transfer portal.

"We’re in an unprecedented time in college football," Bielema said. "It's literally, I lose a guy, I can replace him that next day."

That means more of a rolling cycle of recruits rather than a traditional cycle of adding a number of prep or transfers in a single class. Illinois might target fewer prep prospects as it expects to lose eligibility of 15 players after this season. Some cycles might be more dominated by transfer players depending on the current state of a roster.

“I don't think there's ever a year where you're gonna have low numbers,” Bielema said. “I think everything's always gonna have a little bit more balance.”

Nebraska Illinois Football

Illinois quarterback Artur Sitkowski listens to head coach Bret Bielema during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Nebraska on Aug. 28, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 30-22.

Early start

Another NCAA rule change that’s made an impact for the Illini’s offseason is the NCAA allowing players to work with coaches during the summer period before camp.

That means a chunk of time that is normally spent exclusively with the strength staff has been split into some time where coaches can have practice with new freshmen and players on the roster in the fall.

“We’ve been able to be on the grass with our freshmen as they come to campus, which has never happened in the past,” Bielema said. “To be out there with footballs and work football drills, it’s been very beneficial to us.”

Bielema expects all but two of his players to be on campus the weekend of July 4, with most of the new freshmen having gotten to campus at the beginning of the past spring semester or over the past few weeks. The only player out with an injury currently is Shawn Miller, who is recovering from a shoulder injury in the spring. Bielema said he would be ready to go when fall camp starts.

Freshman quarterback Donavon Leary is one of the new faces on campus. With a lot of stopgap transfer additions over the past couple of years, he could be one of the potential players who is a long-term fit at the position. His brother, NC State starter Devin Leary, has given him some helpful advice.

"I think to his credit, he's done a really good job, and even just kind of picking his brother's brain about what to expect and some things to be on the lookout for, and some things that I think he wished maybe his brother would have done differently," Lunney said. "That was just him telling me, his parents telling me that. So he's got a great advantage built in there that he's got somebody who has been through it before, and can tell him the ins and outs of the transition of being a college quarterback."

Arthur Sitkowski is also back for the Illini and will enter an open competition with Tommy DeVito for the starting spot once fall camp gets underway.

Conference realignment

In May, Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller said that realignment would be coming to the Big Ten at some point. That could mean a different schedule model.

Bielema has been through multiple realignment shifts in the conference as a player, assistant and later a head coach at Wisconsin. His Badgers were successful in the short lived era of the Leaders and Legends Divisions.

It’s unclear what changes the conference would go under, but the one thing Bielema is primarily concerned with is keeping local rivalry games.

"I believe in rivalries," Bielema said. "I think when people play teams that they're close to, it means a lot to the fans. … I'm all for containing some of the natural rivalries that exist by geography. But I also understand the need to drive further.”

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball


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