125- Justin Cardani- So.
Breakdown: Justin Cardani returns at lead-off for the Fighting Illini after an impressive 16-win freshman campaign highlighted by numerous ranked wins and the 21st seed at the NCAA tournament. Cardani does the majority of his damage in neutral where he prefers to wrestle from space using his length and footwork to stay at a range where he can get to his outside single, but opponents generally cannot get to him. Cardani’s style is a bit vexing. He appears to be almost retreating a good deal of the time. He gets opponents to chase and then, bang, he’s in on a single leg. It reminds me a little of the way Jesse Delgado used to get to his offense. Cardani is a proficient finisher from this outside single position and equally proficient in the scrambles that often ensue. Defensively, Cardani uses his length and footwork to limit clean entries and when opponents do get to his legs, his length and scrambling present a difficult finish. This combination makes Cardani a pretty stingy customer. Cardani held every opponent but three to 5 points or less over the entire season. He held top-10 ranked opponents Devin Schroder and Drew Hildebrandt to 3 and 1 point respectively. Cardani is solid on the floor and despite some occasional difficulties getting off bottom, he generally gets the match back to neutral and resumes his game plan. It would be nice to see Cardani diversify his neutral offense a bit to create a few additional pathways to victory. Even a modest improvement in this area should see Cardani drift up into the mid-teens in the rankings and could see Cardani favored in his first-round match-up at NCAAs.
Best Wins: Michael DeAugustino, Brandon Courtney, Jack Medley, Liam Cronin (3 times), Nico Aguilar, Elijah Oliver
Worst Losses: Probably Bryce West and Logan Griffin
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Spencer Lee is out of reach for basically everybody, but beyond Spencer, there is a lot of parody in the Big 10 at 125. I am anxious to see how Cardani stacks up with RayVon Foley, Brock Hudkins, and Devin Schroeder.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Potential 4x California State Champion Maximo Renteria signed with Illinois. Illinois has enjoyed some decent success with California talent as their last 5 individual national titles each came courtesy of the Eureka state.
133- Lucas Byrd- Fr.
Breakdown: Lucas Byrd came to Champaign as the #1 ranked prep 120 pounder in the country. His prep accolades included three Iron Man top-3 finishes, a Super 32 title, two Ohio state titles, 3 Fargo All-America medals, and greco world team appearance. Wrestlers of this pedigree generally acclimate themselves pretty well right out of the gate and I expect Byrd will do the same. An accomplished greco guy, Byrd likes to wrestle from underhooks and control ties limiting his opponent’s opportunities while creating opportunity for his own throw-bys and short offense. When he’s not in ties, Byrd likes to limit openings by dropping a hand to the mat into a three-point stance or sometimes dropping to a knee until he can get his hands back on his opponent. Byrd is not a high-volume leg attack guy but he does pop-off his fair share of shots and is a competent finisher when opportunity strikes. Byrd should be fine on the floor as well. He is active and athletic on bottom and seems to have enough top to handle short time ride-outs or mitigate riding time advantages when necessary. Byrd may be better suited as a 125 pounder at this point, however last season Byrd jumped from high school 120 pounders to D1 133 pounders and was still generally able to move guys around and take territory. He’s had another year to get bigger and better so I don’t believe size will be too much of an issue. The 133 waters are always deep, but anything less than a trip to the NCAAs for a blue-chipper like Byrd would be a little disappointing.
Best Wins: Byrd had a solid redshirt season but didn’t hit a ton of high-level guys. His best win was Indiana standout Cayden Rooks. He also had a nice win over solid Wildcat veteran Colin Valdiviez.
Worst Losses: Byrd took 4 losses during his redshirt. All were to solid guys. An early season loss to Jordan Hamdan may have been his toughest loss of the year.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Guys like Jordan Decatur, Mike DeAugustino, and Boo Dryden will likely be the crowd fighting for those final few Big 10 qualifying positions. I am anxious to see where Byrd is with this tier of opponent.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Byrd is just a Freshman and appears to still have some room to grow into a full-sized 133. I would anticipate Byrd to remain the guy for a while. Illinois has capable depth in We Rachal and Maximo Renteria may project as a 133 as well.
141- Dylan Duncan- Sr.
Breakdown: Much like Travis Piotrowski last year, Dylan Duncan’s hits his Senior season in Champaign having already accumulated 60+ career wins, three trips to the NCAAs, and enough quality wins to climb into the teens in the rankings. However, much like Travis Piotrowski last year, Duncan heads into his Senior season having consistently come up short against the nation’s elite. Duncan appears to be one of those gatekeeper types. He doesn’t have any NCAA hardware himself, but he generally doesn’t lose to anyone except for the guys competing for NCAA hardware. Up to this point, Duncan has been almost a perfect measuring stick for success. If you lose to Duncan, you are not quite ready for the big time. If you beat a guy as solid as Duncan, you have probably arrived and are ready make a run at NCAA hardware. Illini fans should expect another solid season, another NCAA appearance, but likely not enough elite wins to make it to Saturday at NCAAs. Duncan bumped up to 141 last season and the move appeared to be a pretty welcome one. Duncan looked definitively more active and was still wrestling strong late into the season. Piotrowski bumped up a weight class as a senior and surprised most by putting together a 27-4 senior season (with two wins over Sammy Alvarez) to vault from the middle of the rankings into the top 8. Here’s hoping that Duncan’s senior year looks the same. 141 is incredibly top heavy with Sebastian Rivera, Nick Lee, Jaydin Eierman, and Chad Red each considered high AA contenders. However, beyond these top contenders, the remaining field appears to be within in reach for a guy like Duncan. Maybe, just maybe, Duncan takes one final step forward and ends his Illini career in style on Saturday at NCAAS.
Best Wins: Mitch McKee, Jason Renteria, John Erneste, Devin Schroder, Ian Parker
Worst Losses: DJ Lloren and Parker Filius
Most Anticipated Match-Up: I’m anxious to see if a highly touted youngsters Anthony Echemendia and Joey Silva can get past a guy like Duncan. A match-up with Minnesota transfer Michael Blockhus would also be fun.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini bring-in prep star Danny Pucino at 141. He’s a little off the national radar, but very tough. Illinois also landed a pair of Illini younger brothers in Michael Gunther and Trey Piotrowski both of whom project at 141.
149- Mikey Carr- Jr.
Breakdown: Mikey Carr is my favorite current Illini wrestler. Mike Poeta once told me that Mikey Carr and Isaiah Martinez are the only two guys that he coached who train so hard that the coaching staff actually needs to force them to rest on occasion. How do you not pull for a kid like that? Unfortunately, Carr has missed two full seasons to injury and has pretty much been banged up for his entire Illini career. However, in his relatively brief window between injury, Carr has racked up a super-impressive hit list including the likes of Nick Lee, Chad Red, Tommy Thorn, Kanen Storr, Max Murin, Tristan Moran, and Mitch McKee. Carr’s success is nearly entirely predicated on relentless pace and effort. He prefers to wrestle from neutral where his offense is predicated on constant motion, repeated fakes, and a high-volume of leg attacks. His style demands a tremendous amount of output. It’s a style that tends to take a physical toll over the course of a long grueling season and can be problematic for a guy with Carr’s injury history. To that point, Carr has been limited by injury during the post-season every season so far. However, this season, Carr bumps up to 149 and perhaps the additional nutrition and strength from a bump up in weight class combined with the abbreviated 2021 covid schedule will be just the recipe that Carr needs to finally be relatively healthy in March. If so, I really love Carr’s chances to scratch and claw his way on to the NCAA podium.
Best Wins: Nick Lee, Tommy Thorn, Chad Red, Max Murin, Kanen Storr, Mitch McKee, Tristan Moran
Worst Losses: No “bad” losses. Career NCAA losses to Max Murin, Matt Findlay, and Sa’Derian Perry are all matches that I thought Carr would win.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Sammy Sasso, Brayton Lee, Max Murin, Yahya Thomas, and Kanen Storr will all be great match-ups with likely NCAA seeding implications.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: High upside recruit and NHSCA junior national champ E’lan Heard likely projects at 149. Luke Odom could also very well land at 149.
157 Johnny Mologousis- Jr.
Breakdown: Eric Barone’s graduation means a changing of the guard at 157 for the Fighting Illini. The spot is certainly not settled at this point, but Johnny Mologousis appears to be the man most prepared for the job. Mologousis was a prep stand-out. He was a 2x IHSA state runner-up for former Illini great Griff Powell and had plenty of national exposure as a prep. He has three years of college wrestling under his belt and despite being a backup to this point, Mologousis has flashed an ability to compete with varsity level competition and has even pulled off a few signature wins. Mologousis is not a prolific leg attacker. He generally implements more of a counter offense style with go-behinds and re-attacks and he can frustrate opponents with an ability to far-ankle scramble out of danger. On the floor, Mologousis is tough on top and most proficient when riding legs with a power-half. It’s a top game that certain opponents can really struggle with, even some high quality opponents. This makes Mologousis a good bet in my mind to compete very solidly against the back half of the conference and to possibly steal a few high-level wins against guys who struggle with quality leg riders. With 157 being a little more navigable then most weight in the Big 10, a trip to NCAAs is not out of the question for Mologousis.
Best Wins: Mologousis has careers wins over hammers Wyatt Sheets and Jarrett Jacques.
Worst Losses: Mologousis had a number of close losses to solid guys last year. His worst loss was likely to OKSt freshman Jalin Harper.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: IHSA match-ups with Will Lewan, Fernie Silva, and Kendall Coleman would be entertaining.
Waiting in the Wings at Illinois: Freshman Big Boarder Luke Odom likely projects as a 157 pounder.
165- Danny Braunagel- So.
Breakdown: I was super-impressed with Braunagel’s freshman campaign and not just because he led the team with 23 wins and earned the #15 seed at NCAAs. What stood out even more, was the way Braunagel went about his business with a relentless drive to improve and tremendous will to win. His championship approach to training and competing raised the bar for the entire Illini squad. So much so, in fact, that Jim Heffernan named Braunagel and his twin brother Zac as captains of the team already as freshman. On the mat Braunagel is a total grinder. He is always coming forward hard, hand fighting, taking ground and attacking. He’s got a sneaky nice single leg and is a physical finisher when he gets to the legs. Guys who constantly push forward can at times struggle defensively, yet Braunagel is better defensively than most realize. He scrambles surprising well and does a lot of damage with short offense and re-attacks. On the mat, Braunagel’s game is likewise more-or-less predicated on pace and effort. In the top position, he brings toes-in-the-mat heavy forward pressure and hard mat returns. On bottom, it’s consistent motion, effort, and activity. The freshman version of Braunagel was already problems for most of the country, but not quite on par with the nation’s elite. I am certain that the sophomore version of Braunagel will be even better. Potential conference match-ups with 165 title contenders like Marinelli, Wick, and Carson Karchla will be great opportunities to see where Braunagel stands with the very best. While it may be a bit premature to suggest Braunagel is ready to go with these guys, it is certainly realistic to slot Braunagel just below the very best and squarely into fringe All-American territory with about a dozen or so other guys. These dozen guys can be found every year grinding through the backside of the NCAA bracket for three or four or five tough do-or-die matches. When it comes to sorting through this group of guys, I always lean towards the guys with the biggest will to win. In my mind, this gives Braunagel better than a puncher’s chance.
Best Wins: Kennedy Monday, Zach Hartman, Cam Amine x 2
Worst Losses: Braunagel’s nine losses were all to national qualifiers. His most surprising loss was probably NIU national qualifier Izzak Olejnik.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: I’m looking forward to seeing Braunagel tangle with Marinelli and Karchla, but match-ups with the next tier guys like Joe Lee, Emil Soehnlen, Jacob Tucker, and Cam Amine may have a larger impact on his NCAA seed and his pathway to All-American.
Waiting in the Wings: Illinois has home grown Kenny Kerstein backing up Braunagel who should be a career 165.
174- DJ Shannon- Fr. / David Riojas- Sr.
Breakdown: The Illini have several options to replace Joey Gunther at 174 pounds. Veteran David Riojas has been around now for four seasons after being forced into starting duty prematurely as a true freshman in 2018. Riojas struggled through a brutal Big 10 schedule as a true freshman, but now, three years later, he is far better suited to compete. Last year Riojas entered the Midlands where he won two bouts and wrestled to a tough 4-0 loss to #6 Dylan Lydy suggesting that he has covered plenty of ground since 2018. Should Illinois start Riojas, expectations would be similar to those of Mologousis at 157. Illinois would be looking for Riojas to be competitive with the back half of the conference and to minimize damage against the conference’s elite. However, an alternative for the Illini may emerge in DJ Shannon. DJ Shannon took a slightly circuitous route to Champaign. A native of the East St. Louis area, Shannon prepped across the river in Missouri where he won three Missouri state titles. He originally committed to West Virginia, but decommitted after Sammy Henson departed. Shannon instead spent that year in Colorado Springs working with Kevin Jackson at the Elite Accelerator Program. He then signed with Illinois and redshirted last season. On the mat, Shannon is an exciting and explosive prospect with no limit to his ceiling. Like many elite prospects his offense is currently ahead of his defense and his neutral wrestling is ahead of his mat wrestling. When you put these ingredients together you get some really encouraging wins mixed with a few head-scratching losses. For example, during his year at the EAP, Shannon knocked off PSUs Joe Lee and gave Nate Carr a legitimate scare on his way to a 6th place finish at the US junior nationals. Likewise during his redshirt season at Illinois he knocked off #13 Anthony Mantanona. At the same time, Shannon takes some bad losses to guys that you might think Shannon just too talented to lose to. The Illini coaching staff may have to put a little extra developmental time with a prospect like Shannon, but at the end of the day, the juice could really be worth the extra squeeze with a kid this talented.
Best Wins: Shannon has wins over Anthony Mantanona, Cody Surrat, and Fritz Shierl. Riojas pulled off a nice win over Maryland’s Phillip Spadafora.
Worst Losses: Shannon’s worst loss was probably Oklahoma’s Elijah Joseph. Riojas dropped a bout to highly regarded freshman Nate Jiminez last year.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Match-ups with Drew Hughes, Bailee O’Reilly, or Joe Grello will likely be fairly indicative of Illinois chances of qualifying for NCAAs at 174.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Ohio State Champ and NHSCA Senior National runner-up Trey Sizemore is dropping to 174 and could factor in this competition as well. Illinois has also signed Dylan Connell who is chasing his 4th IHSA State Title this season and is going to be a really good one.
184- Zac Braunagel- So.
Breakdown: Zac Braunagel also had an outstanding freshman season. He won 20 matches in a brutal 184-pound division and carried the 15th seed into the NCAA tournament. Braunagel deserves all the same credit as his brother for his championship mindset and for setting the bar in terms of hard work and commitment for the entire squad. Zac was also named captain of the team as a freshman. Zac Braunagel has an extensive greco background. He won a Fargo Greco National title in 2018, an US Junior Greco National title in 2019, and took 3rd in the US Senior Greco Nationals this summer. Not surprisingly, Braunagel’s folkstyle game reflects some of his greco prowess with a lot of effective hand fighting and control ties. A bit more surprisingly, Braunagel also brings solid leg attacks and leg attack defense to the party. His reattacks and short offense are among his best folkstyle weapons. Braunagel is proficient on the mat and rarely struggles to get away on bottom. His top game is equally solid. Perhaps more importantly, Braunagel never gets outworked or outhustled and seems to be constantly growing and improving. Unfortunately for Braunagel, despite earning the #15 seed at NCAAs as a freshman, three other Big 10 Freshman were seeded even higher in Rocky Jordan, Abe Assad, and Aaron Brooks. For the moment, Braungael is still looking up at this group along with Husker All-American Taylor Venz and Wolverine star Myles Amine. Still, Braunagel isn’t too far behind this group and seems to be gaining ground by the day. Braunagel upset seasoned Gopher NCAA runner-up Brett Pfarr in a freestyle match this offseason and then finished third at the Senior Nationals in greco, knocking off former age level world team member and Senior level WTT finalist Marcus Finau along the way. NCAA medals may yet be in the not-so-distant future for Braunagel, but they going to arrive.
Best Wins: Braunagel knocked off Cameron Caffey, Nelson Brands, Billy Janzer twice, Jelani Embree twice, and Owen Webster.
Worst Losses: Probably Max Lyon
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Just about every 184 matchup in the Big 10 is amazing. Braunagel did not hit Taylor Venz or Myles Amine last year, so I’m looking forward to those matchups. A matchup with Wisconsin transfer Chris Weiler will be fun as well.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: Trey Sizemore would likely bulk up into this weight if it were necessary.
197- Matt Wroblewski- Jr.
Breakdown: Matt Wroblewski will return as the starter for Illinois at 197 after an 11-15 sophomore season. Wroblewski was largely competitive in his first run as a starter but just didn’t translate enough of these competitive matches into victories to really arrive on the national scene. Wroblewski wrestles a bit more like a light weight than your typical 197. He’s got a little flash to his game. He’ll go inside trip, ankle pick, or attempt a toss. He’s got nice athletic entries to either side and shows a fairly consistent ability to get his hands locked around the legs. His problem is finishing once he gets there. Wroblewski is taller, leaner 197 and he seems to get horsed a little bit by the bigger thicker variety of 197s. He’ll tend to get stuffed and stretched out underneath or get his hands ripped too often when he gets to a standing single. Things look somewhat similar on the floor. Wroblewski has the ability to turn with tilts, legs, or cradles however he struggles to hold down bigger and stronger opponents who seem to be able to explode to their feet off the whistle and negate any opportunity to work from top. If Wroblewski can tidy up his finishes in neutral and find a way to shut down his opponents first move on top, he is capable of a significant step forward and possibly into ranking consideration. If he can not improve in these areas, then another season hovering around .500 will likely play out, leaving Wroblewski on the outside looking-in at NCAAs.
Best Wins: Alex Hopkins, Marty Mueller, and Kevin Snyder
Worst Losses: Wroblewski had no “bad” losses. All 15 were to guys with winning records. His toughest losses were probably to UTCs Rodney Jones or Missouri’s Wyatt Koelling.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: The IHSA match-ups in the conference will be fun as Jacob Warner, Eric Schultz, Cameron Caffey, Peter Christensen, and Wroblewski are all former IHSA champs.
Waiting in the Wings for Illinois: The Illini recently signed Joey Braunagel, the youngest and largest of the Braunagel brothers. He is a rising senior coming off a junior year state title and possessing many of the same characteristics as his brothers.
Heavyweight- Luke Luffman- So.
Breakdown: Man, wrestling heavyweight in the Big 10 was just ridiculously tough last season with the murderer’s row of Gable Steveson, Mason Parris, Anthony Cassioppi, and Trent Hillger, just to name a few. Luke Luffman jumped into this frying pan as a true freshman and acclimated himself quite nicely winning 17 matches and ultimately winding up as the only true freshman in the NCAA Championship heavyweight field. Luffman is a good one. He’s another young Illini starter with a 12-month competitive calendar, a penchant for hard work, and a championship character. Luffman has an extensive greco background which can be particularly useful against the larger heavyweights in the division. However, Luffman is also an athletic former HS 220 pounder with quality leg attacks, solid finishes, and high-level neutral defense which allows him to contend with the smaller more athletic heavies in the division. Luffman’s freestyle and greco are likely a little ahead of his folkstyle at this point. This is due mostly to a par terre game that is more dangerous than his current folkstyle top game. Luffman just earned an All-American medal in freestyle at the 2020 UWW U23 Nationals and he won both freestyle and greco national titles at Fargo in 2019. As Luffman gets bigger and stronger and he makes the requisite adjustments to D1 folkstyle mat wrestling, he should ascend further and further up the rankings and ultimately contend for Big 10 titles and national honors. However, this ascension is not going to happen this year in a Big 10 heavyweight field which may be actually approaching all-time levels with the return of Steveson, Parris, Hillger, and Cassioppi plus the additions of age level World Champion Kerkvliet and talented Ohio State transfer Tate Orndorff. It’s likely going to have to be the iron sharpening iron thing for another year for Luffman. He will surely take some losses at the hands of this talented crew, however, he will be very battle-tested and prepared for all-comers by the time he hits the mats at the NCAA Championships in March.
Best Wins: Thomas Penola, Bobby Heald, Alex Esposito, and Jordan Earnest
Worst Losses: All losses were to NCAA qualifiers. An early season loss to Max Ihry may have been his toughest.
Most Anticipated Match-Ups: Luffman missed Cassioppi last season. I’d like to see that match-up of IHSA champions. Match-ups with Indiana transfer Garrett Hoffman as well as Christian Lance, Christian Rebattaro, and Christian Colucci surely have NCAA implications.
Waiting in the Wings: Illinois added Sandburg heavyweight Mike Bosco to the room this year.
Team Breakdown: The Illini had a nice 10-4 bounce-back season in 2019-20 which included notable victories over Missouri, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Michigan. Perhaps more impressively, the Illini accomplished all of this with arguably their best wrestler, Mikey Carr, out with an injury and four Freshman in the starting lineup. The Illini’s recent efforts to shift their recruiting focus back home to Illinois seems to have paid dividends as Illinois led the nation with eight homegrown NCAA qualifiers. Additionally, Illinois’s decision to bring Bryan Medlin in to oversee the Illinois Regional Training Center seems to have also paid dividends. Medlin’s reputation as an outstanding greco coach saw the migration of senior level greco standouts Max Nowry, Ellis Coleman, Joe Rau, Travis Rice, and West Cathcart to Champaign to train with Medlin. It also helped usher in a collegiate roster littered with their own greco accolades. Cardani owns a 3rd place medal from Fargo in greco. Lucas Byrd made a greco world team. Dylan Duncan took 2nd in greco at fargo. Danny Braunagel was a greco all-american. Zach Braunagel and Luke Luffman were each greco national champions. Additionally, Illini reserves We Rachal, Luke Odom, and Michael Gunther were each Fargo greco all-americans. The presence of Medlin and the IRTC seems to be attractive to prep recruits who excel at greco and who want a 12-month training environment with a staff who can build on their high level greco skill set. The past few off-seasons have seen Illini wrestlers hit the podium at Junior Nationals, U23 Nationals, and most recently at the 2020 Senior Nationals where Danny Braunagel took 7th in freestyle and Zach Braunagel finished 3rd in greco. This off-season success should excite Illini fans because it is a strong indication of a winning culture being developed and taking root. I spoke with coach Heffernan briefly at the IHSA state tournament and I asked him for his impressions of the team. Heffernan almost immediately referenced the team’s character and made special mention of the maturity and commitment he was seeing from the youngsters like Braunagels, Cardani, and Luffman. Heffernan seemed genuinely excited for this group. This season’s lineup will once again be a young one with six underclassmen projected to start and only one senior in Dylan Duncan. The Fighting Illini will not yet be ready to contend with the nation’s elite for a team trophy, but they will be a hardnosed and well-prepared team-on-the-rise. The Illini should enjoy their share of dual meet success and once again qualify a nice contingent of individuals to the Big Dance. More importantly, with the requisite culture in place, Illini fans should enjoy watching this team continue to collectively improve and grow towards eventual realistic expectations of competing for a team trophy. If this group is a special as Heffernan says, they just might be the group to finally get it done.