Illinois quarterback Luke Altmyer may seem long on seasoning, but Saturday's season opener against visiting Toledo will mark merely his first start with the program and second overall.
"Sometimes I have to step back and look through that (lens) and remind myself that even though he presents himself as a very experienced, mature player, he's experienced in every facet of the sense except for actually playing," Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. said.
The Mississippi transfer's nine career appearances and four touchdowns — three through the air — still beat the alternative as the Fighting Illini face the reigning Mid-American Conference champions.
Sixteen starters return for the Rockets, including seven all-conference players. That total includes quarterback Dequan Finn, a second-team all-MAC selection after passing for 23 touchdowns and adding 631 yards on the ground. Cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, an all-MAC first-teamer a season ago, anchors a defense that helped Toledo finish 9-5 with a win over Liberty in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Illinois went 8-5 in 2022 but lost four of its last five games, including a 19-10 defeat to Mississippi State in the ReliaQuest Bowl. The defense, which finished No. 1 in opponents' scoring in the nation, got a jolt when defensive lineman Jer'Zhan "Johnny" Newton decided to return for his junior season.
Several key players must be replaced behind Newton, including cornerback Devon Witherspoon, who was selected No. 5 overall in this year's draft by the Seattle Seahawks. Illinois is also without running back Chase Brown, who compiled 1,883 total yards in 2022 before being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals.
A Walter Camp All-American second-team selection, Newton paced Illinois with 5.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries.
Toledo coach Jason Candle stressed the importance of making the Illini "earn whatever they get" on Saturday.
"Whether it's Toledo playing whoever or it's any game you would have on Saturday on TV, more games are lost than they are won, you know," Candle said. "Teams self-inflict. They turn the ball over. They have a ton of penalties. They make costly errors in tough spots.
We've got to protect the ball. We've got to make smart plays. We've got to communicate great on defense and not give up easy touchdowns."
The Saturday contest will mark the first meeting between the programs.
—Field Level Media