The biggest recruiting win for Bret Bielema in his time at Illinois is without question getting the Law Firm of Newton and Randolph to return for the 2023 season. In today’s portal crazy world and with NFL salaries skyrocketing we as fans miss that keeping your guys is more important than getting new ones a lot of the time. With Newton and Randolph returning this year it got me thinking, when was the last time we had a pair of Defensive Lineman like this for multiple years? Yes Illinois has talked about being Linebacker U at points in time in our History and with the likes of Butkus, Nitschke, Studwell, Brownlow, Howard, Rice(technically he was a LB) and Hardy why not? And while we have had some great Defensive Lineman in the past we have to go back over 30 years to see a tandem like this and that can be a very very good thing.
I’m 44 years old, I started attending games at Memorial Stadium in 1982 with my mom and my Step Dad. From 82 through the 95 season I missed 3 home games. That being said I can barely remember anything about the 83 team other than the Rose Bowl (puke) and that is why I say the best Illinois team of my lifetime is the 1989 Fighting Illini. Sorry 2001 team, it was a great season but you had some real nail biters and frankly got a little lucky. 1989 was loaded with talent all over the field. You had the eventual #1 pick in the NFL draft, experienced OL, Howard Griffith at RB, Mike Bellamy at WR, Derrick Brownlow at LB and Henry Jones in the defensive backfield. There were stars everywhere but the key to making that team tick was the DL led by Mo Gardner and Mel Agee.
Mo Gardner was an undersized DT who overwhelmed his opponents with strength leverage and athleticism. Mel Agee was a long angular DE built like an oversized power forward who used his length and footwork to swallow up RBs. Sound familiar? When you think of Newton you would come up with almost the exact same line as Gardner. When speaking of Agee it’s like a mirror of Randolph. Heck Mo and Johnny are listed at the same height and same for Agee and Randolph. Furthermore Gardner wasthe more heralded guy just like Newton. It’s shocking how eerily similar the two are.
That leads to the question, can these mirrored set of DTs lead to a similar season the Illini saw in 1989? In 89 the team went 10-2 in a year that was capped off by Illinois’ first bowl win in 26 years as the Illini spanked Virginia 31-21 in the Citrus Bowl (can we lobby to always play UVA in a bowl game?). The Illini’s two losses that season were @Colorado, who lost in the defacto title game to Notre Dame and to Michigan. A Michigan team that lost 2 games all year, one to Notre Dame (National runner up/Miami) and in the Rose Bowl (road game) to USC. Funny Illinois beat USC to start the season. This year’s Illini don’t have anyone on the schedule (now) that would resemble either of those two teams. Yes Penn State is good but let’s not get silly here.
I don’t believe the 23 Illini are as good as the 1989 Illini on paper but I do believe they can have the same level of success. The key will be keeping the Law Firm healthy and their opponents soiling their briefs early and often.
I predict this team will go 10-2 just like 89, the question will be, what do they do with their remaining two games can determine is this the best Illini season since 1983? I hope so.