6 of the 14 signees project to play on the defensive line. And Illinois needed to reload the front line in the worst way. With the early departure of Akeem Spence, Illinois needed to replenish the interior with some big-bodied defensive tackles.
The first to pledge was Belleville Althoff DT Merrick Jackson. Jackson at 6'2" tall and pushing 340 pounds is an absolute space eater inside. And despite being so big, he still moves pretty well and knows how to get leverage. Unfortunately, it is looking as if he will have to go the JUCO route. However, Illinois did pull another in-state five-technique defensive tackle in Illini legacy Bryce Douglas. Douglas checks in about the same size, but a few pounds lighter. He has great strength and should really be an excellent run-stuffer and might be a little underrated.
Still, with the likelihood of Merrick Jackson going to junior college, Illinois needed another interior defensive lineman. So ironically enough they went to the junior college ranks, and got Abens Cajuste. Cajuste is very quick off the ball and should be a dangerous three-technique who plays from day 1. He's big but lean and has long arms. Of all of the defensive linemen, he had the most complete offer list, including a number of other BCS programs. Given Illinois' difficulty in landing Junior College prospects in the past, getting Cajuste on campus and enrolled was a big deal.
One guy who's a bit of a tweener at this point is Trotwood-Madison's Jarrod Clements. Clements has been listed almost entirely as a defensive end, but at 6'2" 270 pounds, he could easily grow into a defensive tackle, but he still has great edge rush moves and could play outside too. Still, I think given the thin numbers at defensive tackle, he uses those explosive skills and grows into a defensive tackle backing up Cajuste at the three-technique.
On the outsides, Dawaune Smoot of Groveport, Ohio committed early to Illinois after attending a camp in the Chicago area this summer. Smoot, at 6'3" 240 lbs has great speed for his size, and could be a great edge rusher given enough development.
The important pickup, especially with the departure of Evan Panfil for Purdue, was Miami Norland's Paul James. The high school teammate of current Illinois defensive tackle Teko Powell reunites with a fellow Norland Viking now on the Illini defensive line. James is a big body on the strong side who plays with a lot of aggression and has a high motor.
Justin Green, Terry Hawthorne, and Supo Sanni all graduate from a secondary that was ravaged by injuries this past season. And today, Tim Beckman stated that safety Steve Hull would move to the offensive side of the ball for his senior season. So to say that the Illini needed to reload in the secondary would be a gross understatement. But they identified the need, and filled the position up in a hurry, inking 8 defensive backs in total.
At the STAR position, the Illini bring in junior college safety/linebacker Eric Finney. Finney will be asked to step in right away where experienced senior Ashante Williams left off. Finney played safety in junior college, so that should benefit him right away in the "star" role.
At safety, Illinois landed a trio of hard-hitters. Darwyn Kelly of H.D. Woodson in Washington, D.C., James Crawford of St. Thomas Aquinas, and JUCO safety Zane Petty out of Sacramento, California. Kelly hails from the same high school as former Illinois DB Tavon Wilson. He has prototypical size for a safety at 6'2" 190 pounds and hits like a hammer. Crawford was a later addition to Illinois, and will likely take some time to develop, but coming from a program like St. Thomas Aquinas, there's no question about good coaching in high school. Aquinas is one of the best in the country. Zane Petty was a bit of a surprise when he committed to Illinois, but the JUCO defender should give the Illinois defensive backfield a boost this coming season.
One guy who could play just about anywhere besides the line on the field is Hilliard (OH) Darby athlete Caleb Day. Day played running back, receiver, corner, and safety for Darby, and there's a chance he could play any of the last 3 at Illinois, but most likely he projects as either a corner or safety. At the Illinois Friday Night Lights camp this summer, Day spent most of his time at corner and shut down pretty much everyone he faced. With the loss of Reon Dawson, Day could be the guy to be the boundary corner and match up against bigger receivers with his size.
As far as the true corners go, the Illini brought in two in-state corners to round out the defensive signee group. The first was the guy who got it all started. Dillan Cazley was commit #1 for Illinois all the way back in February. Cazley will have a lot to prove coming from a smaller school in Charleston, Illinois, but knowing Cazley, he'll be eager to prove that he can hang in the Big Ten.
The other corner is Jaylen Dunlap of Crete-Monee. The #1 corner on a state-championship team, Dunlap improved his skills as a corner by going up against one of the top receivers in the country in Laquon Treadwell every day in practice. He didn't go up against college receivers, but matching up on Treadwell might have been the next best thing. With the competition for playing time so wide open, Dunlap could find himself in the rotation as a freshman if he catches on quickly enough.
That more or less wraps up the group for 2013. It was a solid start for Illinois in 2013, but with another stellar in-state class in 2014, Illinois will need to really cash in on in-state prospects. One position at which Illinois did not sign any players was linebacker. But with one of the deepest, most talented linebacker classes in recent years in the state of Illinois, the Illini will look to bolster the front 7.
But in the meantime, many of these players are already gearing up, knowing that there is a strong possibility that "Immediate Impact Illini" will be more than just a catchy phrase. It might just be a reality.