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Watch now: Five Illinois walk-ons receive scholarships; Artur Sitkowski named this week's starter
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Watch now: Five Illinois walk-ons receive scholarships; Artur Sitkowski named this week's starter

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Ryan Meed, Illinois

Linebacker Ryan Meed is one of five Illinois walk-ons who received a scholarship earlier this week.

CHAMPAIGN — First-year Illinois football coach Bret Bielema, a former walk-on defensive lineman at Iowa, remembers what it felt like to eventually earn that coveted scholarship from former Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry.

Earlier this week, Bielema had the chance to gift that same triumphant feeling to five walk-ons he now coaches. During his weekly radio show Wednesday night, Bielema announced that just hours before in a 7 a.m. team meeting, he surprised linebackers Bryce Barnes — a 2019 Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley grad — Sean Coghlan, Isaac Darkangelo and Ryan Meed, and tight end Tip Reiman with scholarships.

Bielema elaborated on his reasoning to reward those five players in his weekly Thursday press conference, citing that all of them have high character and have worked their way into game action.

"(They all have) different kinds of stories," Bielema said. "You got Sean Coghlan, who's a walk-on from the Chicago area, who was in his final season and has done everything right from A to Z. Tip Reiman is a non-scholarship player from (South Dakota) that has come in and really been a very valuable third tight end for us, a great complement to the other guys. Ryan Meed, walk-on from New York that is just everything, from recruiting to weight room to academics, (he's) everything that stands for all that's right in college football, especially here at the University of Illinois.

"Bryce Barnes, right down the road from Gibson City, played a lot last year. I use him as a shield on punt. Just an awesome, awesome young man that represents (the right things). And then Isaac Darkangelo, who actually was a transfer from (Division II Northern Michigan), came in and just has done a tremendous job here."

No one else in Wednesday's meeting knew about Bielema's intentions, not even his coaching staff, which made the joyous occasion even more exciting.

This is the second time during Bielema's nine-month tenure that he's placed a group of walk-ons on scholarship. Linebacker Alec McEachern, tight end Michael Marchese and defensive backs Christian Bobak and Tailon Leitzsey had their statuses raised in April.

That moment was captured on video and has racked up nearly 80,000 views on Twitter, but this time around Bielema opted to keep the moment within the program.

"I'm also a guy that's a little old-school. I think that's us, that belongs with us," Bielema said. "That happened in our team meeting room, and that moment will live forever with those players and those coaches and me as something that the outside world never gets to see. That's the privilege of being in our room."

Although that moment was shielded from the public, Meed still publicly expressed his gratitude in a heartfelt messaged shared via Twitter. The redshirt freshman has appeared in 10 games over the last three years with the Illini, recording one tackle.

"Being a walk-on means having a chance, and as kid from Brooklyn, New York, a chance is all I ever needed," Meed wrote Thursday. "I took an unbelievable risk, leaving my home and all I knew to come here and prove that I am a Division I scholarship athlete. As of (Wednesday), I became that. I am truly humbled by the power and mercy of God as He has blessed me beyond measure to be able to be in this position today. Thank you to my mother, my heart and soul in human form, for never letting me quit on myself or shaking in her belief of who I would become. ... Finally, thank you to coach Bielema, (linebackers coach Andy Buh) and the rest of the incredible staff at Illinois for believing in me and taking a shot on a kid from Brooklyn.

" ... I will forever bleed Blue and Orange and I am so excited for the rest of the year and the years to come! Now, back to work!"

Art again

Bielema said Wednesday's scholarship news gave his team "a jolt of energy" after its 37-30 home loss to UTSA last week.

Quarterback Artur Sitkowski, a Rutgers transfer, made his first Illini start in that defeat, completing 22 of 42 passes for 266 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.

Bielema said Sitkowski will start again Saturday at Virginia, though Brandon Peters could be available to play. Peters, a sixth-year senior, entered the season as Illinois' QB1 before suffering a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury in the season opener.

"Brandon Peters, like I said the other day, he's been practicing with us all week and will be a game time decision," Bielema said. "Right now Art will be our starting quarterback, but obviously the chance to get BP involved is exciting."

In-N-Out

Bielema gave injury updates on a few more players Thursday.

Wide receivers Jafar Armstrong and Brian Hightower, who both haven't played this season due to leg injuries, are healthy and will be available against Virginia. Armstrong is a Notre Dame transfer, while Hightower is in his second season with the Illini. Last year, Hightower tied for the team high with three receiving touchdowns.

Running backs Chase Brown and Chase Hayden will also make their returns. Both players appeared in the season opener but were sidelined last week. Brown had an undisclosed ailment, while Hayden, an East Carolina transfer, was out with a right ankle injury. Brown totaled team highs of 104 carries and 540 rushing yards last season.

Fellow running back Mike Epstein, who has an injury-riddled past, will miss time once again with an undisclosed injury, according to Bielema. The fifth-year senior currently paces Illinois in carries (25) and yards (107) and scored the team's only rushing touchdown of the year.

"He's still going through an evaluation process," Bielema said. "Don't know how long (he'll be out) or what the projection is for him, but Mike won't be with us on this trip."

Starting defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. is also sidelined with a leg injury he sustained last week. The redshirt freshman has two sacks and a forced fumble this season.

"(Randolph) should be back hopefully within the next couple weeks," Bielema said.


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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