Illinois will be installing a new defense in 2011. Much of it may be similar to 2011, but there will no doubt be changes as a new defensive coordinator (as yet unnamed) puts his unique mark on it. Spring ball will tell us how much will change. In the meantime, an early look at returning personnel is in order.
The loss of Whitney Mercilus is a big blow along the defensive line. The nation's sack leader decided to forego his remaining year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, and he will be missed. There is a strong likelihood cornerback Terry Hawthorne will do likewise. Both losses would expose depth issues that could be harmful to a cohesive defense in 2012.
Defensive end has bodies to replace Mercilus. The question is how productive they can be. Upcoming junior Tim Kynard saw playing time backing up Mercilus, and he might surprise. He has some quickness, and the extra year of experience helps.
Redshirt freshman Kenny Nelson and redshirt sophomore D.J. Woods both play the position, but it remains to be seen whether they can perform adequately there. It is possible Glenn Foster or Justin Staples will be moved to provide quality depth.
In fact, either of these upperclassmen could win a starting spot at defensive end. Foster is a natural end who played the 3-technique tackle out of necessity this year. If enough depth can be found a tackle, a true question mark at this point, Foster would love to challenge for a starting spot at end.
Staples backs up Michael Buchanan on the other side but has been cross-trained at both spots. He is undersized but has quickness and experience. Buchanan, assuming he returns for his final season, could come into his own in 2012, especially if he can add another 10 pounds of muscle to his tall, slender frame.
A Staples move would make more sense if either Brandon Denmark or Darrius Caldwell come through. Denmark is a natural rush end who was tried unsuccessfully at middle linebacker. He is much happier on the line. Caldwell is tall and rangy. He impressed as a redshirt this year, although NCAA Clearinghouse issues made him ineligible at midseason. If he is eligible, he could challenge.
One defensive tackle spot is secure, provided Akeem Spence doesn't jump the gun and apply for the NFL draft. He is one of the strongest two Illini, and he has two years experience as a starter. If the Illini can find an adequate partner for him, he could excel next season.
If Foster stays at tackle, he and Spence make a good if not great starting tandem. But who will back them up? Jake Howe played every game on special teams but rarely at tackle. He will probably back up Spence. Austin Teitsma is a three-technique, if only he can overcome his high metabolism and bulk up sufficiently to hold down the position.
Redshirt freshman Chris O'Connor is available but has yet to distinguish himself. He also needs to bulk up after being recruited as a defensive end. Otherwise, the Illini need recruiting help. Vontrell Williams has reconfirmed his commitment to the Illini, but two more are needed this signing class. It remains to be seen if that will happen.
The linebacker spots have quality if not quantity. The only graduation loss is middle linebacker Ian Thomas. He will be missed, but WILL Jonathan Brown became a star in his sophomore season. He might also be a candidate in the middle next year.
MIKE Ralph Cooper and WILL Henry Dickinson both lettered as true freshmen and have potential. Sophomore Houston Bates is still learning linebacker. He backed Brown this season. That is four quality players, but depth through recruiting is necessary.
Ashante Williams missed much of this season, but he began to show why he was a preseason starter at SAM. He is strong and fast and can both stop the run and defend the pass. He will start there unless he is moved back to safety. Squadmen Earnest Thomas and Zeph Grimes are available and could develop, and Tajarvis Fuller will be a midyear enrollee likely to play the position.
If Hawthorne leaves for the pros, the Illini will be losing two of their top three cornerbacks since Tavon Wilson is graduating. Justin Green has speed and potential, but he played behind the other two much of the year. Jack Ramsey played behind Wilson all year but rarely saw the field except on special teams. He will be needed at his best.
The only other scholarship cornerbacks on the roster are rookies. Valdon Cooper played in a majority of the games this year. He is slender, but he is smart and can flip his hips to make plays. Eaton Spence redshirted. He has a build similar to Cooper and might develop.
The safety positions were adequate at best this year. The top three are returning, but they must play better for the UI to be successful. Supo Sanni is built like a linebacker but prefers strong safety. He is a force on run plays but sometimes struggles in pass protection.
Steve Hull started when healthy and called db checks. He is a smart player with good athleticism, but he doesn't have the change of direction ideal for defensive backs.
Pat Nixon-Youman started three games late in the season, including the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. He is still regaining all his quickness after traumatic hip surgery two years ago. The only other scholarship safety is redshirt freshman Nick North, and little is known about him at this point.
The punting situation is interesting. Freshman Justin DuVernois has a powerful leg but suffered from nervousness under fire. His two dropped snaps were injurious and caused Illini coaches to use Ryan Lankford instead.
Lankford is a receiver by trade, but he boomed rugby punts for a 46 yard average in the bowl game. Incoming placekicker Ryan Frain can also punt if needed and can provide additional competition in the fall.
Illinois coaches are fanning out around the country trying to shore up a decent recruiting class with a month to go before signing day. They need to bring in additional defensive help, especially along the defensive line and backfield.
If they are unable to bring in talent sufficient to see playing time early, the proud UI defense might suffer due to a lack of depth at some positions in 2012, especially if they experience a rash of injuries.