Why Zakhari Franklin Puts Illinois’ WR Corps Over the Top in 2024

    No Isaiah Williams or Casey Washington, no problem? The addition of Zakhari Franklin could make for a more deadly Illinois WR room in 2024.

    Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington were mainstays in Illinois’ WR room for the last three seasons. Now, both are in the NFL. To mitigate their losses, the Fighting Illini added a few transfers to complement their young talent, including a commitment from Zakhari Franklin late Thursday.

    But will it be enough?

    Adding Zakhari Franklin Solves Illinois’ Experience Issue

    Williams and Washington took their 131 receptions, 1,725 yards, and nine touchdowns with them to the big leagues, leaving two major holes in the WR corps that Bret Bielema and Co. needed to fill — it’s safe to say they have.

    Illinois added former Ole Miss and UTSA WR Franklin and Iowa Central Community College pass catchers Mario Sanders II and Michael Bartolotta to bolster the unit.

    Pat Bryant, who has served as the WR3 in the last two seasons, and four inexperienced (all entering their third collegiate season at most) but talented (three-star recruits or higher) homegrown WRs comprise the returners in the room.

    Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will have the summer to decipher the WR depth chart, but the top three are clear: Bryant, Franklin, and Sanders. That trio is as lethal — if not more so — than the Williams-Washington-Bryant combination over the last three years, and they’ll benefit from Luke Altmyer having a year of experience under his belt.

    Standing 6’3″ and 200 pounds, Bryant possesses the size/speed build that wins on the outside. Even with target hog Williams earning most of the looks last year, Bryant put up a 43-560-7 receiving line as the team’s resident deep threat and contested catch artist.

    In 2023 he’ll challenge for the No. 1 spot, but he has competition…

    Turn the clock back a year, and Franklin was one of the most sought-after pass catchers in the country after back-to-back 1,000+ yard and 12+ TD campaigns at UTSA. He landed with Ole Miss, but injuries slowed him in camp and held him to nothing more than bench fodder for the season.

    Yet, Franklin’s healthy now and ready to prove he can be a WR1 at a Power Four program.

    While those two battle for the leading WR label, Sanders’ role as the starting slot WR is locked in. He lit up the JUCO field in 2023, hauling in 72 catches (first in the NJCAA) for 942 yards (third most) and 12 TDs (tied for first).

    His heroics resulted in ICCAC Offensive Player of the Year and NJCAA First-Team All-American honors. The electric athlete also proved to be a weapon as a kick returns, taking two attempts to the house.

    Following a bowl appearance and an 8-5 record, Illinois fell to 5-7 last season and, according to FanDuel, currently has a win total of 5.5 for 2024. However, there is reason for optimism.

    The Illini ranked in the top five in the Big Ten in passing (third), yards (tied for fourth), and scoring (fifth) in Lunney’s second season as the play-caller, and he’ll trust Altmyer to push the ball downfield more in 2024.

    KEEP READING: List of Illinois Fighting Illini NFL Draft Picks

    6’3″ and 250-pound bowling ball Kaden Feagin returns in the backfield, Murray State TE Cole Rusk joins the fray after a 39-512-6 performance in 2023, and two elite OL transfers (OT J.C. Davis from New Mexico and G Kevin Wigenton II from Michigan State) bolster an offensive line returning three starters.

    Put simply, Bielema’s squad has the talent to compete on the offensive side of the ball. The team will go as far as Altmyer can take them, and Bryant, Franklin, and Sanders are going to make his job that much easier.

    College Football Network has you covered with the latest news and analysis, rankings, transfer portal information, top 10 returning players, the 2024 college football season schedule, and much more!

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