The Illinois defense is supremely confident after ranking high in national rankings in 2011. Several starters have departed, including probable first round draft choice Whitney Mercilus at end. But there is experienced personnel at every position. The key will be developing depth.
The Illini defensive line could be its strength this year despite the loss of Whitney Mercilus. There is both talent at depth at end and the bookend Leo position. Michael Buchanan is expected to be a sack leader after collecting 6.5 sacks last fall and getting another 4.5 in the spring game. He will be a three year starter at Leo and combines speed, strength and intelligence in a confident package.
Senior Justin Staples moved ahead at end this spring. He is a little undersized at 240 pounds, but he is quick and athletic. Bracing at the point of attack may cause concerns at times, but he has learned moves to counter. He will have to sit out the first two games of the season as punishment for a winter mistake, but he should fit right in upon his return.
Redshirt sophomore Tim Kynard backs Staples and should help make a good 1-2 punch. He also has some experience to go along with his athleticism. Brandon Denmark and Darrius Caldwell are younger players with speed. They both need to gain strength and size, but they and Kynard should form a good threesome in 2013.
The Illini also boast potential greatness at both tackle positions. Now a junior, one-technique Akeem Spence was a freshman All-American and is the team's strongest player. The quicker Glenn Foster is up to 290 pounds and could be difficult to block at the three-technique. Together, opponents will have tough sledding keeping them out of the backfield.
There is some concern about depth at tackle, but it appears Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe have continued to make progress. Teitsma has trouble gaining weight, but he is much stronger at 270 than he was last fall at 260. Howe was originally recruited as a fullback, so he has some agility to go with good size.
Chris O'Connor, Dejazz Woods and second semester enrollee Daniel Rhodes are undersized third stringers who will need another year or two to get up to speed. Entering freshmen Vontrell Williams and Teko Powell are quick for their size, although they do need to gain more strength. Williams is up to 292 now, but both may be best off redshirting unless injuries take a toll.
Jonathan Brown could be the star of the defense if he continues his improvement. Moved to MIKE linebacker from WILL, he should be a natural in his third year. His quickness, aggressiveness and ability to diagnose and make plays could have him knocking at the door of an early entry into the 2013 NFL draft if his goals are reached.
Houston Bates backed up Brown at WILL last fall, but he was the starter there all spring. He will need hand surgery shortly, but he should be fully recovered long before fall. It has taken time for him to adjust to linebacker from defensive end, but his smarts should be a big asset.
Upcoming sophomores Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson both have potential as backups as they continue to learn. And three rookies were recruited because they are aggressive football players. T.J. Neal, Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina could get early opportunities, especially on special teams.
The secondary needs more depth, but the starters are all upperclassmen with experience. We are listing the Star position as part of the secondary because it functions a great deal as a nickel back. It also has linebacker responsibilities in run defense.
Senior Ashante Williams is the established starter at Star, and he is primed for his best season. Second semester enrollee Tajarvis Fuller played extremely well in the Spring Game as Williams's backup. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for it with speed and aggressiveness.
Earnest Thomas was moved from Star to safety to shore up a position limited by injuries. He was named Most Improved defender in the spring. It remains to be seen whether he goes back to Star in the fall, but he may have found a home at safety backing up the experienced threesome of Supo Sanni, Steve Hull and Pat Nixon-Youman.
Sanni sat out all but four spring practices after straining his Achilles tendon opposite the one surgically repaired two years ago. He should be good to go in the fall, and UI coaches like his ability at safety. Steve Hull calls the checks for the secondary and has the smarts to do that. He has recurring shoulder problems that forced him to miss the Spring Game, but he is a starter when healthy. Nixon-Youman has also impressed the coaches.
Nick North and walkon Ben Mathis back up the other safeties, but it remains to be seen whether they will play this fall. Rookies Taylor Barton and B.J. Bello will work at safety in Camp Rantoul. It will be interesting to see the safety competition, but most likely the freshmen will play only if injuries require it.
One or more freshmen may be needed at the corners. Seniors Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green are two of the fastest Illini, and they have played cornerback multiple years. Senior Jack Ramsey is a capable backup, and redshirt freshman Eaton Spence is said to be much improved.
But all three seniors may also see time on offense. Thus, freshmen V'Angelo Bentley, Justin Hardee and Jevaris Little will be tested early and often. Bentley has the strongest reputation, but Hardee and Little came on their senior seasons and have excellent size and speed for the position. It is hoped at least one can come through to add needed depth.
Punting is improved, but it is still a work in progress. Justin DuVernois should be much better after a year under his belt, and he averaged 42 yards per punt in the Spring Game. He has altered his hand position on receiving snaps to prevent drops he experienced last fall. He has a tremendous leg, but he is still inconsistent and tends to let a strong rush bother him.
Ryan Lankford is a good rugby-style punter who will be used at times against strong winds or to keep the ball away from quick returners. Walkon Garrett Stroup seemed to struggle much of the spring, but he boomed several good ones in the Spring Game. Rookie Ryan Frain will be competing for placekicker, but he can also punt if needed.
The Illinois defense should be its strength this season, especially if there are no major injuries and sufficient depth can be developed to allow starters some rest during games.