Illinois offensive lineman Doug Kramer (65) blocks during an NCAA college football game against Rutgers Saturday October 14, 2017 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Rutgers defeated Illinois 35-24. (AP Photo / Bradley Leeb)


BRADLEY LEEB

By James Boyd Decatur Herald & Review

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s a unique situation that would not have happened without a global pandemic. For the first time ever, seniors – who would otherwise have graduated – were granted another season of eligibility by the NCAA due to COVID-19.

Perhaps no team in the country has seized this opportunity more than Illinois. The Illinois are returning with 22 super seniors, most of the nation, for a total of 40 seniors. Every Super Senior who had the opportunity to dress for another campaign in Champaign chose to do so.

“I was devastated to be honest,” said Illinois first year coach Bret Bielema of his 22 super seniors. “At my first team meeting, I said to them, ‘Hey, I’m the new head coach, but I’m the newest member (of the program) in the room.’ I stood in front of the team and looked at a couple of young men. I didn’t know who was who. … The reason I brought Doug (Kramer Jr.) and Vederian (Lowe to the Big Ten Football Media Days on Thursday) who were really good representatives on top of that, they were one of the first two (super seniors), I already told them. ‘”

Bielema, who was hired in December, doesn’t take the experience and leadership of a Super Senior for granted. In the end, they still made the decision to come back knowing they had to adjust to a new leader.

Remembering the moment when Kramer and Lowe, both start offensive linemen, walked into his office and officially decided to play another season at Champaign, Bielema couldn’t help but laugh. Sure, it was a significant step in his brief tenure, but there’s another light-hearted reason he won’t forget this meeting.