Vic Koenning expects a lot from his Illinois defensive players this year. They have a year in his system, and many experienced players return. There may be no superstars, but there are a lot of athletic players eager to win. If they can play their games this fall with the teamwork and passion they showed throughout Camp Rantoul, they will surprise.
Defensive line has been a concern since the loss of Corey Liuget, and there are still depth concerns at tackle. But Akeem Spence is improved, and he was good enough to be a freshman All-American last season. Spence has shown leadership as well. He suffered a minor ankle sprain, but he will be 100% long before the season begins.
Senior Craig Wilson continued his battle to become a quality defensive tackle after a spring move from offense. He still stands too erect at times, and he lacks experience working the multiple techniques necessary to foil offensive linemen.
But he is strong at the point of attack and hard to move on run plays. He may be replaced on obvious passing downs to save energy, but he might end up tough to block if he keeps working at it.
Whitney Mercilus appears to be coming into his own at defensive end. His #85 was a frequent sight in the backfield as he used his quickness and savvy to put pressure on quarterbacks. Glenn Foster is a capable backup, and Tim Kynard is improving as well. Foster may be used at tackle some on obvious passing downs.
The MIKE linebacker is a concern for the Illini right now. Senior Ian Thomas is the only player with experience, but he has been nicked in camp and not gotten the reps he needs. If he is healthy, he should be a leader on the defense.
As a contingency, Koenning has tried Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson, both freshmen, at the position. Cooper is smart and instinctive, and he will likely get significant playing time. Dickinson is rangy and athletic, someone who can play WILL also.
Sophomore Brandon Denmark is a MIKE, but he is in back of the two freshmen as he seeks to become more consistent and more aggressive. If Thomas can't play, the Illini will lack experience if not quality at MIKE.
Sophomore Jonathan Brown appears to be coming into his own at WILL. Redshirt freshman Houston Bates backs him up. Bates needs more seasoning, but he should share time with Brown. Both players are talented but lack experience.
The SAM linebacker/nickel back hybrid was set back when Ashante Williams was suspended and not permitted to work out with the team in Rantoul. Senior Trulon Henry is learning the position, but it takes time. Redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas made some good plays in camp but needs experience.
Cornerback is in good hands. Secondary coach Mike Gillhamer says if you have three quality corners, you are doing well. Tavon Wilson showed his experience throughout camp and was the best one-on-one defender. He is also a true leader. Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green share the load at the two positions. Both could eventually be in the NFL as they are fast and athletic.
Fifth year senior Miami Thomas is getting his groove back after multiple surgeries and should be the fourth corner as he gains the trust of the coaches. But freshmen Valdon Cooper and Eaton Spence both show promise. Cooper has also been tried at nickel back. Both freshmen have a chance to play this year, especially Cooper.
Safety lacks the experience expected due to Henry's move. Supo Sanni has been the heir apparent for two years now after missing last season due to surgery. He is big and athletic. If he can come through there, it will help a lot. It appears Steve Hull may be slightly ahead of Pat Nixon-Youman as Sanni's safety running mate. Jack Ramsey moved there and seemed to find a home.
The two safety spots have ability. The only question is how quickly they can establish their presence once games begin. Of course, Tavon Wilson and Trulon Henry can move back there if necessary. They were the two safety starters last season.
Freshman punter Justin DuVernois has a big leg. When he is on, he kicks long high spirals with great hang time. Consistency will be a problem, but he seems to be adjusting to the speed of the college rush. He could be a pleasant surprise if he gets off to a good start this season.
The defense will be good if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Up to now, the chemistry and teamwork have shown signs of being that type of unit.