Linebacker Martez Wilson was the leading tackler in 2010, and he was a team leader. Replacing him will be essential for the 2011 Illinois team. Fellow starter Ian Thomas could move back to Wilson's spot if needed since he played there extensively in 2009. Regardless, someone will need to step up to help Thomas fill the two inside linebacker positions.
The player at the top of the waiting list is upcoming sophomore Jonathan Brown. The Memphis product impressed as a rookie, receiving extensive playing time. He accumulated 31 tackles and returned an interception 66 yards. He likes to stick his nose into the action; he seems to be an instinctive player.
Two squadmen who arrived on campus last fall should be in the mix. Brandon Denmark saw playing time at Bandit, but he will move to the inside. He has athleticism similar to Wilson and could surprise there with experience.
Houston Bates is an aggressive player who redshirted as he learned a new position. The former defensive end out of Louisiana could come into his own sooner than later. He is also a special teams standout.
Two new players could also compete for playing time. Henry Dickinson was considered a sleeper when the Illini recruited him, but his outstanding play as a senior earned him 1st team status in Memphis. Originally considered a Bandit, Dickinson is the kind of tall, rangy player the Illini need at inside linebacker. South Carolinian Ralph Cooper is shorter but compact and also has instincts for the position.
Bussey will be hard to replace at outside linebacker, but there is some potential there. Ashante Williams returns and could surprise if he can stay healthy. He has experience at linebacker and throughout the secondary.
Redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas was recruited for the position and could begin to assert himself this spring. And redshirt freshman Ean Days will get a shot there. South Carolina product Zeph Grimes has the speed and aggressiveness to be effective there. He was outstanding on blitzes from a similar position in high school, but he will start out at safety.
Depth at cornerback should be much better than last fall. Senior Tavon Wilson is being moved back to his more natural position and is a three year letter winner. He performed admirably at safety last year when injuries forced the move, but he is more comfortable on the boundary corner.
Terry Hawthorne never got his full speed back after suffering a stress fracture in his foot at the beginning of fall drills. When healthy he has great potential. Fellow junior Justin Green played extensively replacing Hawthorne and learned as he went. He should benefit greatly from spring ball, and he is one of the fastest Illini.
Pat Nixon-Youman returns with another chance to earn playing time. In limited action, he accumulated 15 tackles and grabbed two interceptions, returning one for a long touchdown. He may be ready to have his best year after struggling in his recovery from major surgery.
Jack Ramsey appears willing to stay at cornerback after splitting time between defense and receiver and could surprise there with experience. And Miami Thomas is still battling to attain full health after surgeries on his shoulder and both knees. He hopes to get into the mix.
Two freshmen are small but quick and could provide help at corner in the fall. Eaton Spence and Valdon Cooper are both in the 5'-10", 170 pound range. Spence is aggressive, and Cooper has blazing speed.
Supo Sanni was lost to Achilles surgery before the start of the season. He may be limited in the spring but should compete for a starting berth when healthy. He got many reps last spring and at Camp Rantoul before the injury, and he has size and speed.
Trulon Henry was also a fixture at a safety spot last year. He is mature and intelligent if not fast. He led the team in 2010 with three interceptions. Together, he and Sanni could provide the kind of leadership and strength up the middle all good defenses need.
Steve Hull saw time at safety last year after moving from offense, and he showed glimpses of being an instinctive player there. He also will benefit from spring ball where he can have practice time on technique. Redshirt freshman Fritz Rock will get a chance to prove himself this spring, and Ean Days could move back there.
Two freshmen could also compete for time this fall. Dondi Kirby could be outstanding if he is fully recovered from knee surgery last June. The Pennsylvanian is tall, fast and aggressive. And Floridian Nick North arrives with an impressive resume.
The punting chores handled so capably by All-Big 10 Anthony Santella will be placed into the hands of an untried rookie. Punter could be the biggest concern for 2011. Redshirt freshmen Brad Janitz and Patrick Dunn both have strong legs, but they are not yet ready to make an impact similar to Santella.
Florida freshman Justin DuVernois was recruited out of national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. He averaged 45 yards per punt at a national kicking camp, but he rarely kicked for his high school team because of its explosive offense.
The problem all three will have is responding to the faster speed of the college game. All must kick quickly to avoid the rush while maintaining proper technique each time. Janitz and Dunn were inconsistent at this last fall, and DuVernois takes two full steps on his approach. He may have the same difficulty initially.
There are still decisions to be made, and rookies may need to come through at some spots. But the defense will have a year in coordinator Vic Koenning's system and should be better for it. If injuries remain minor, the 2011 Illini defense could be a good one.