New defensive coordinator Tim Banks produced quality defenses at Cincinnati, and he is looking forward to duplicating or improving on those results at Illinois. He uses a highly aggressive style, and he has the athletes to make it work.
The Illini lost 1st round NFL draft pick Whitney Mercilus, but the front four should be one of their strengths this year. Leo Michael Buchanan is getting the most early press. He was set back briefly by a broken jaw late spring, but he has the maturity, experience and savvy to become the leading sack master for the Illini this year. And he is evolving into a team leader.
Justin Staples backed up Buchanan last year but appears to have established himself at the defensive end opposite Buchanan. He will likely miss the first two games due to a disciplinary decision, but he is also a senior and has excellent speed for the pass rush.
Both he and Buchanan are only around 240 pounds each, so there are some concerns about run defense with them. But they have the aggressiveness and smarts to get the job done.
Buchanan is backed by Darrius Caldwell, and Tim Kynard and Kenny Nelson support Staples. Kynard will likely start the first couple games and might be hard to dislodge afterward. The former basketball player has the athleticism for the role.
Redshirt junior Akeem Spence is the strongest player on the team, and he's gained weight to improve his stopper role at 1-technique defensive tackle. He considered an early entry to the NFL but chose to stay at Illinois. Spence is also becoming a vocal leader and should be one of the bulwarks of the defense.
Spence is joined by fellow starter Glenn Foster, who has muscled up to 290 pounds without losing the quickness he needs as a pass rusher from the three-technique position. He had to sacrifice himself last year so others could make plays. He plans to make many of his own this season.
Depth is a concern at defensive tackle, but there is no shortage of bodies. Redshirt sophomores Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma may be ready to contribute. Teitsma is quick and aggressive but has trouble getting bigger than 275 pounds. He is much stronger now, so hopefully that will compensate for a lack of size. Howe has some quickness to go with his 300 pound body.
Other tackles include redshirt sophomore DeJazz Woods, redshirt freshman Chris O'Connor and true freshmen Daniel Rhodes, Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams. Both Woods and O'Conner are trying to bulk up for tackle after being defensive ends originally.
Rhodes enrolled second semester and has spring practice under his belt. Powell and Williams will both be given opportunities to earn playing time. They both have the size and potential to be good as they get older.
The starting linebackers should be solid. Memphis junior Jonathan Brown has moved from weakside to the MIKE position, and he could be the defensive star of the team. He has natural instincts and two years of experience making plays for the defense. If he has a great year, don't be surprised if he is an early entry into the NFL.
Playing next to Brown at WILL, redshirt sophomore Houston Bates may be ready to assert himself. Bates has long had potential, but he's needed to learn the nuances of linebacker after playing defensive end in high school. He is looking to add skills besides his excellent pass rush ability.
Their spring backups were Ralph Cooper at MIKE and Henry Dickinson at WILL. Both are sophomores who played backup roles last year. Both are smart and instinctive, but they lack experience and maturity. It is hoped they can spell the starters.
If not, one or more of the three entering freshmen will need to come through. All are natural linebackers with potential; the question is how soon they can acclimate and play with abandon. One or more of T.J. Neal, Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina may play on special teams as well, giving them experience for next year even if they don't see time with the defense this fall.
The Star position is a hybrid safety/linebacker who defends both run and pass and functions as a nickel back when needed. Fifth year senior Ashante Williams is finally ready to show what he can do. He has a chance to be one of the leaders of the defense.
If Fuller is ready, it will allow Earnest Thomas to work as a safety. The Illini need more depth at the two safety spots, especially given the injury-plagued nature of the group. Supo Sanni is a senior with excellent size and experience, but his Achilles problems have been well documented.
Fellow starter Steve Hull, a redshirt junior, is the quarterback of the secondary but has struggled with neck/shoulder problems for some time now. Senior Pat Nixon-Youman impressed the Illini staff with his improvement this spring, but he is still trying to regain full range of motion with a hip that required major surgery three years ago.
Thomas seemed comfortable at safety this spring, giving hope he can provide quality minutes there. NIU fifth year transfer Tommy Davis has plenty of college experience. It is thought he can provide quality minutes also. Walkon Ben Mathis has seen playing time previously and might have a chance to help out as well. Nick North will try to impress coaches, and Taylor Barton is a promising freshman.
There is definite quality at cornerback, with the hope there may be some depth as well. Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green are seniors with tons of experience. Hawthorne makes spectacular plays at times, although he may be more natural at safety. Green is one of the team's fastest players and should be ready for his best season.
Redshirt freshman Eaton Spence made a strong impression as a backup to Hawthorne this spring, and senior Jack Ramsey returns to boundary corner as Green's backup. Both may be needed to play extensively since Hawthorne and Green may also spend some time with the offense.
V'Angelo Bentley and Jevaris Little are talented freshmen who could make an early impression. Bentley is small but extremely quick and aggressive, while Little is tall and fast. One or both may also help on special teams.
Punting was inconsistent at best in 2011, but freshmen become sophomores. Justin DuVernois had a difficult baptism of fire as a rookie, but he's back with that experience to lean on during tough times. He has a tremendous leg and can kick the ball long with great hang time. If he can become consistent, he can be outstanding by the time he graduates.
Ryan Lankford did well at times as a rugby style punter, and he has the overall ability to be a triple threat in the backfield. Illini special team coach Tim Salem will likely use him some, depending on the situation. Walkon Garrett Stroup had a good Spring Game.
The Fighting Illini offense may go through growing pains this fall as the players get comfortable with a new system. That shouldn't be a problem for the defense since much of what they are doing is similar to the past.If they can keep their starters healthy and find some depth to rest them at times, the Illini defense can carry the load while the offense develops.