Illinois made major improvement on defense this past season. There was a letdown midseason, due in part to a lack of depth as starters tired late in games. And there were some important losses through graduation and the NFL draft. But there is a foundation for further improvement in 2011.
Two of the biggest losses were defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson, both of whom earned All-Big 10 mention. They departed a year early for the NFL draft, leaving major holes at their positions. Graduation took end Clay Nurse, outside linebacker Nate Bussey and cornerback Travon Bellamy. Wilson, Bussey and Bellamy were the top three tacklers in 2010. All will be missed.
However, the cupboard isn't bare. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence was named a Freshman All-American, and he will be back for his sophomore year. He benefitted from Liuget being double-teamed, but he has great strength and can occupy blockers.
There are several players who will compete to replace Liuget. Glenn Foster is a little undersized, but he has the quickness for Liuget's role if his shoulders cooperate. Redshirt freshman Austin Teitsma drew raves for his play with the scout team. The fiery rookie is still bulking up, but the former wrestler has the aggressiveness and strength for the role.
Other squadmen who will vie for playing time include Daryle Ballew, walk-on Wisdom Onyegbule and redshirt freshman Jake Howe. Ballew is a plodder, but he battles on the inside if he can remain free from injury. Howe was originally recruited to play fullback, so he has some athleticism for the role. And it has been learned offensive tackle Craig Wilson will be tried there in the spring.
Three of the best defensive recruits could make a spash this fall, assuming they all qualify. Clint Tucker should be in the mix. The East St. Louis star was highly rated and looked outstanding at an summer Illinois lineman camp.
Two intriguing prospects in the 6'-5" range are Willie Beavers and Chris Jones. Both still must clear academic hurdles, but they can help early if available. Beavers didn't play defense until his senior year but had some impressive highlights on the defensive side. Jones would have been a national recruit if he had better grades.
Whitney Mercilus replaces Nurse at defensive end, and he should be ready for an outstanding season. He has plenty of experience, and little by little he has increased his weight and strength to withstand the demands of the position.
Two freshmen could compete there also. Detroit product Kenny Nelson is tall and rangy and came on his senior year. He is raw but has potential. And Chris O'Connor, the raw-boned Tinley Park Andrew product, should continue to improve as he gains experience.
Bandit is in the capable hands of Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples. Buchanan has been groomed for the position since last spring. The 6'-5" Homewood-Flossmoor star has a year under his belt now and should be comfortable in this hybrid position. Staples gained valuable experience when Buchanan sat out a few games. He has the quickness to be a good one there.
Illinois recruited a tall rangy Atlanta product to provide depth at Bandit. Darrius Caldwell is also 6'-5" and has the frame to add weight without losing speed. He played the same position in high school, making his transition to college easier.
Part two will discuss linebackers, defensive backs and punter.