‘There’s some really good kids here’

CHAMPAIGN — Matt Millen Served as a general manager of an NFL team for most of a decade. If he was still running an NFL roster, the former Detroit Lions executive likely make a stop at Illinois this season.

“There’s a lot of talent. There’s some really good kids here,” Millen told Illini Inquirer on Saturday morning. “The interesting thing is they don’t know how good they can be yet.”

Millen, who served as BTN’s analyst for Illinois football’s 23-15 loss to Michigan State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, has called games across the Big Ten this season for BTN’s No. 1 broadcast booth. While Ohio State and Michigan are the most talented teams in the Big Ten — both are ranked in the top-5 of last week’s initial College Football Playoff Rankings — Millen thinks the Big Ten West-leading Illini (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) are one of the surprises in the Big Ten partly because of their talent, especially on defense.

But Millen, a four-time Super Bowl champion as a linebacker, thinks Illinois’ offensive line is the best in the Big Ten West and that FBS-leading rusher Chase Brown uses that group extremely well.

“The biggest surprise is they have a good offensive line,” Millen said. “Most teams think they have good offensive lines, and they’re not very good. They’re probably the best offensive line that I’ve watched this season. I think Michigan is physical. I think Ohio State is not as physical, but they’re athletic. This group’s good. They do a nice job, and Chase Brown does a really good job using that. That’s kind of his strength. He stays behind it. Just watching the tape that I’ve watched, Chase Brown gets you in more 2nd-and-4s than I’ve seen all season long. He and the kid up at Minnesota, they do the same thing.”

But the Illini defense — which is No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, total defense and interceptions — has several players with NFL talent.

It all starts up front, and redshirt sophomores Johnny Newton (team-leading 47 tackles, 43 pressures, 12.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks) and Keith Randolph (37 tackles, 23 pressures, 10.0 TFLs and 4.0 sacks) are putting together All-Big Ten seasons — Newton is a potential All-American — and could face NFL Draft decisions this winter.

“What surprises me most about Randolph is they use him up and down the line of scrimmage,” Millen said. “He’ll go from an end to a tackle to a three-technique to a bunch of different things. He has that ability. He’s not a pure pass rusher. But Newton’s got some pass rush in him. Hasn’t had the sacks, he hasn’t gotten home, but he’s getting a lot of pressure. You have to be aware of him.”

Millen also is high on the long-term futures of outside linebackers Seth Coleman (33 pressures, 3.5 sacks, four pass breakups) and freshman Gabe Jacas (26 pressures, 4.0 sacks), who are shining this season and taking advantage of one-on-one battles due to the attention given to Newton and Randolph.

“I tell ya, Coleman 49, he’s playing his rear end off,” Millen said. “That’s a good kid. He needs to stay another year at least. That’s good. So when you have two guys you have to worry about, you can double one, you can’t double two. When they pick their poison, the other one usually stands up.

“That freshman kid on the outside, number 17 (Gabe Jacas, that kid doesn’t have any idea how good he’s going to be. He’s legit.”

Illini redshirt junior Devon Witherspoon is considered by many as the Illini’s top 2023 NFL Draft prospect. Many experts consider him a top-75 prospect and likely Day 1 or Day 2 draft pick. He is a potential All-American candidate given his dominance this season (11 pass breakups, one) in coverage that doesn’t always intercept show up on his stat line but does against some of the Big Ten’s best wideouts, including Nebraska’s Trey Palmer ( 1 reception for 1 yard against Illinois) and Keon Coleman (2 receptions for 26 yards against Illinois).

“Witherspoon strikes me as a guy, I’ve played with guys like this, that he plays with a lot of confidence,” Millen said. “He jumps up in your face and he’s going to let you know it all day long. I don’t know if he’s that way, but that’s what he looks like. If he is, those guys are a blast to play with. They are awesome to play with. I played with guys like that. They’ll lead you right to the fight, trust me. They don’t participate, but they’ll take you right there. They’re fun to have on your side.”

But Millen said the two who stand out most to him on the Illini defense are fifth-year senior safeties Sydney Brown (38 tackles, seven pass breakups and four interceptions) and Quan Martin (44 tackles, nine pass breakups, three interceptions and two forced fumbles). Martin, who mostly plays nickel back, was a midseason All-American pick by multiple outlets, while Brown is the vocal leader and physical enforcer in the Illini secondary. Brown also has four interceptions during the Illini’s last three games.

“Even when you watch Brown play, you can see there’s intensity all the time,” Millen said. “You can see that on the film. That’s rare, and you can see that he loves it. He’s into it. He’s playing at a high level. He’s 100 miles per hour all the time. Not a real big guy, but he hits like a big guy. Has good cover skills, he understands schemes, he understands where his help is. Martin’s the same way. Martin understands where his help is. He understands who he’s helping when he’s supposed to. He knows where he’s supposed to get to. He has a real good feel. Some guys have it and some guys don’t. They have a real good feel in coverage, where the help. Comes from and how you play the coverage. I really enjoyed watching them. It’s fun to watch them.”

Despite its loss to Michigan State on Saturday, Illinois (4-0 against the Big Ten West) has the opportunity to take a stranglehold on the Big Ten West next week with a win over Purdue in Champaign, but the Illini are 0-2 against the Big Ten East and haven’t yet beaten a top-tier opponent.

But even discussing the path to the Big Ten Championship and a top-tier bowl game is a sign of both Bielema’s impressive leadership of a long downtrodden program and his development of the talent he inherited and has added.

Millen is interested to see how that talent holds up against the Big Ten’s best.

“Listen, there are a lot of good kids out there, you just have to train them, I go to some places and they call them All-Americans, all those stars, that stuff’s a bunch of baloney to me,” Millen said. “Then they get them and they put them in there, and it’s like, ‘Well, develop them! Get them better! They came here for a reason! Get them better!” [Bielema] is doing that. I like his staff. I like his approach. I’ve always liked him, but you can see it happening and they’re in the middle of it right now. They’ve got a good football team. That’s a really good defense. It’ll be interesting when they play Ohio State, Michigan and those type of schools because they’re getting the cream of the crop, and you’re getting the others. But the others can be better than the cream. It’s happened many times. It’ll be fun to see if it happens again.”

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