By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
January 16, 2023
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois football fans can stop worrying about the ‘Law Firm’ of the Illini defensive line splitting up or relocating for the 2023 season.
Jer'Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph have informed the Illinois coaching staff they will both be returning for the upcoming season and have elected to not enter the 2023 National Football League Draft.
With today (Jan. 16) being the deadline for early entrants (non-seniors) to declare for the draft, the official announcement on social media by Newton, Randolph immediately puts the Illini defensive front as one of the most experienced and productive units not only in the Big Ten Conference but every Football Bowl Subdivision program in college football next season.
The return of the duo nicknamed by Illinois second-year head coach Bret Bielema as “The Law Firm of Newton & Randolph”, which accounted for 113 combined tackles, 52 solo tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, puts a defensive line room from a spring football question mark to veteran-led position group that will be counted on by newly promoted defensive coordinator Aaron Henry.
In his bowl game invitation acceptance media conference a month ago before the team left for Tampa, Bielema said he was confident that the name, image and likeness opportunities being created for current Illinois student-athletes would be extremely beneficial in the retention of players from the 2022 roster who would normally have turned professional as their only way to find financial gain.
“I think (Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman) and his staff have been very proactive in the NIL establishment and development but I think it’ll be at a new level here at the University of Illinois in the coming year,” Bielema said. “When this thing jumps into this coming January, now you’re talking about players who could leave or maybe come back. That’s when those NIL conversations are getting more real, right? I do know we can talk (in recruiting) about what some of our current players have gotten and some of our players have done very well and I think it is only scratching the surface of what we can do.”
Newton, who is expected to return for his fourth season of college football, was an All-America selection by numerous news organizations including being a second-team selection by Walter Camp, The Associated Press, CBS second team and Pro Football Focus. Newton, a 295-pound defensive tackle who led the nation in quarterback hits with 19 and was tied for seventh in the nation in quarterback pressures with 59 this past season, said on Dec. 28 in Tampa following the team picture at the ReliaQuest Bowl that “everything is still up in the air” on his decision to turn professional or return to Illinois and play one more season in Bielema’s program while also earning his degree in general studies.
“I’m just waiting to see how this game goes. I feel like if I perform at a high level, then of course I want to leave,” Newton said at Raymond James Stadium, where he had approximately 100 family members and friends from nearby St. Petersburg watch him play in the bowl game on Jan. 2. “I feel like everything is in the air right now. I know I have a bright future whether it’s in the NFL or another year in college. Hopefully, it’s the NFL.”
Newton had one of the best seasons by a defensive tackle in Illinois history by being the first Illini defensive lineman to earn consensus All-Big Ten first team honors since Whitney Marcellus in 2011. By coming back to Illinois for the 2023 season, Newton will have the opportunity for back-to-back first-team selections for the first time in program history since Vontae Davis accomplished the feat in 2007 and 2008.
“He's a guy that will come in extra to study film, more so than what we expect or ask of our guys," Illinois defensive line coach Terrance Jamison said earlier this season. "So that's something that he's built a routine of, and so when you study film, you start to pick up on little things, little tendencies, and you can take advantage of that on game day."
Randolph, a 6-foot-5 and 300-pound defensive end, had the most productive season of his career with 53 tackles and five sacks. Randolph finished the 2022 season tied for second in the Big Ten in TFLs (with Newton) with 13. According to Pro Football Focus, Randolph was fourth in the Big Ten in QB hurries among interior defensive linemen with 26.
Randolph, a former two-time state champion basketball player at Belleville (Ill.) West High School, was a All-Big Ten Conference third team selection by both the league’s coaches and media contingent and had a stretch of four games where he recorded at least one sack (vs. Virginia, vs. Chattanooga, at Wisconsin and vs. Iowa).
“We've just gotten so much closer," Randolph said earlier this season on his relationship with Newton. "We hang out a whole lot more, and now I know his strengths, his weaknesses; he knows mine. I just feel like when you know that much about a person on the field, it's only right to be that close off the field as well.”
Following the announcement of Newton and Randolph, Illinois will be expected to still have at least seven consistent starters returning on defense for the 2023 season and several more players in the secondary who earned starts in the final month of the season due to injuries or veteran player bowl game opt-outs.
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