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Watch now: Illinois' Bret Bielema says 'as a head coach you're only as good as your roster"

Watch now: Illinois' Bret Bielema says 'as a head coach you're only as good as your roster"

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Wisconsin Illinois Football (notes)

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, left, and Illinois head coach Bret Bielema meet after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. Wisconsin won 24-0.

CHAMPAIGN — First-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema and his staff spent most of their team's bye week traveling across the country evaluating prospects.

No matter what avenue — whether its through the NCAA transfer portal, a junior college transfer or the traditional high school recruit — Bielema said it's imperative for his program to upgrade its roster. He spoke rather candidly about the current state of his team Monday.

"I just know this, as a head coach you're only as good as your roster," Bielema said. "I kind of learned that the first time I went to the Kentucky Derby, right? Nobody was betting on the jockeys. Everybody was betting on the horses, so to win the derby you gotta have the right horse, and I think our players are gonna be a reflection of what our program stands for.

"I stood at the front of the room last year when I took over and said everybody is invited back because of COVID and they gave me the opportunity to do that. But as this roster continues to transition, I've got to make tough decisions. Players have to make decisions. The roster is gonna have to change to get to where we want to be to win the (Big Ten) championship."

The Illini have a nation-high 22 super seniors, who all chose to return for an extra season granted by the NCAA due to COVID-19. Several other normal seniors will still have one more year of eligibility next year, too, but Bielema made it clear that no spots are guaranteed.

One area of concern he pointed out is up front. Nearly all of Illinois' top offensive linemen this season, with the exception of Julian Pearl, are in their final college campaign. Bolstering that group will be a high priority moving forward.

"In particular the offensive line, I don't believe we have a player in the two deep (second stringers) that (previous coaching staffs) have recruited here over the last three years that is really significantly doing anything for us in the playing department, and that's a major concern," Bielema said. "That's something that we have to do."

Injury update

Bielema provided his usual injury update Monday and announced that running back Mike Epstein, who's had an injury-riddled career, is out of the season.

The fifth-year senior started in the Illini's season-opening win over Nebraska and scored a touchdown, but he left the team's second game of the year against UTSA with an undisclosed injury and has not played since.

"Mike and I sat down last week," Bielema said. "He's basically awaiting a test that will happen at the end of the year. It won't happen before our last (regular-season) game so he'll take a look at (some) things and (use) perspective at that time to kind of make a decision about the future."

Star linebacker Jake Hansen has been in and out of the lineup this season due to an undisclosed injury. The sixth-year senior was sidelined for back-to-back contests before making his return in Illinois' last game against Wisconsin, and he left that game with an injury, too.

Bielema said Hansen will be out for an "extended period of time" and that he expects him to "have an announcement here later in the week."

Quarterback Brandon Peters exited the Wisconsin game with an undisclosed injury as well, and Bielema said the sixth-year senior still hasn't been cleared for practice.

He has not been ruled out for Saturday's game at Penn State, but Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski, Northern Michigan transfer Ryan Johnson and third-year quarterback Matt Robinson will receive most of the snaps as Peters awaits the green light, Bielema said.

Wide receiver Deuce Spann, who has a knack for big plays, and linebacker Seth Coleman were both out against Wisconsin with a pulled hamstring and undisclosed injury, respectively. Bielema said Spann's status is up in the air, but he expects Coleman to return against the Nittany Lions.

Back to the basics

Bielema, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen all said that they used the bye week to revisit their players' fundamentals.

Perhaps no position group needed that extra time to practice more than the receiver corps. The Illini's two most productive receivers are Spann and Isaiah Williams, who were both quarterbacks in the spring. Petersen said they're still learning the nuances of being pass catchers rather than throwers.

"We're young at the wide receiver position," Petersen said. "Two of our guys were in my (quarterback) room in the spring. They're still young, young in their college career. We do not have a lot of experience right there, so every time we get an opportunity to go out on the field and get better, it's awesome for that group. So to have a bye week right there, and we got another one coming before the season is over, is great for that group."

Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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