If you had to pick Illinois’ number one strength last year, it would hands down be the defense. A defense that rated 7th in yards per game, 3rd against the pass and 15th in points allowed per game. A defense that returns seven starters and possibly even, bear with me here, two to four potential All-Americans. I’ll get to that next week in my season predictions article, so stay tuned.
Illinois lost the best defensive lineman in college football last year in Whitney Mercilus. They lose his 16 sacks and his merciless (I had to) playing style. They also lost safety Tavon Wilson, who was a surprise 2nd round pick by the Patriots in the NFL draft. Also lost were important cogs Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry. But not to worry, Illinois still has a very strong defense coming back. With a new coaching staff, look for the Illini to move to a 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
-The defensive line is turning in to Illinois’ bread and butter position. The lose Mercilus, but it looks like senior Michael Buchanan will step up and fill his shoes. Buchanan had 7.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL last year opposite of Mercilus. Junior Akeem Spence is still a mainstay at defensive tackle. The former Freshman All-American had 5.5 TFL and 69 tackles last year while playing a big role in stopping the run. Senior Glenn Foster will probably start opposite Spence at DT and senior Justin Staples could fill in the other end spot.
-Linebacker is another strong position for the Illini. Junior Jonathan Brown will probably bolt for the NFL after this year, he’s that good. Brown is coming of a season where he had 108 tackles, 19.5 TFL and 6 sacks. Sophomore Houston Bates could start next to Brown this season in the new 4-2-5 defense. Bates opened some eyes last year, along with sophomore Henry Dickinson, who will get into the LB rotation this year.
-With the 4-2-5 there is a new position to be accounted for. Beckman and his staff refer to this position as the “Star” position. This player will shift between LB and S during the game. Senior Ashante Williams will be #1 on the depth chart come fall, but look out for true freshman TaJarvis Fuller to fight for the spot as well.
-Cornerback is set with returning starters Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green. Hawthorne is going to play a big role for Illinois this year, on both sides of the ball. Last season Hawthorne had 60 tackles, 5 TFL and 3 INT’s. Due to the lack of playmaking WR’s on the team, look for Hawthorne to get some snaps on offense, along with possible kick and punt return duties. Charles Woodson/Chris Gamble anyone?
-Safety is the big question mark for this season. The Illini lost Wilson and Henry to graduation, but return Supo Sanni and Steve Hull. Sanni and Hull are nothing to scoff at though, combining for 109 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 INT’s and 2 fumble recoveries last year. Sophomore Earnest Thomas should fight for playing time this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a freshman squeezed in to the fold.
-Punting is taken care of with sophomore Justin DuVernois holding down the fort. DuVernois averaged 38.3 yards as a true freshman last year. But don’t count out WR Ryan Lankford to get some opportunities. Lankford actually had a better average last year than DuVernois, and had more punts 50 or more yards.
-Illinois will definitely miss Derek Dimke’s leg this fall. Dimke was almost automatic any time he kicked. Freshman Ryan Frain will probably be the #1 guy. Frain, from Indianapolis, chose Illinois over Georgia Tech..
-The return game was probably the worst in all of college football last year. The Illini had 70 total punt return yards all year. We won’t really know who will factor into the return positions until camp, but Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford, Josh Ferguson, Justin Green, Terry Hawthorne and maybe a few others could factor in to the return game at some point this season unless someone steps up and takes the job for himself.
Tune in next week for the season predictions for Illinois football. Click here to read our season preview for the Illinois offense.