Defensive Line: B-
Illinois could have really benefitted from a deep defensive line class. Injuries to guys like Teko Powell and Kenny Nelson combined with Paul James' perpetual absence from the lineup were detrimental to the defense as a whole last year, so depth would have been more than welcome. Illinois graduated senior starter Austin Teitsma this year, and star-in-the-making Jihad Ward is heading into the second of his two years of eligibility with the Illini.
Not landing in-state guys like Wes Annan or Raequan Williams was disappointing, and Robert Windsor, despite Illinois identifying him early, elected to head to Penn State instead. But the Illini won a couple of recruiting battles late and even held off some other major programs to secure commitments from Chicago DT Jamal Milan and Eastern Arizona CC DE/LEO Sean Adesanya.
Illinois was the first school to offer Milan, and it was something that stuck with him throughout the process. With offers from several other Big Ten schools as well as a couple ACC programs, Milan even turned down a late push from Kentucky to sign with Illinois. He is a powerful and strong interior lineman who can either bulk up into a run-stuffer or lean down a bit and become a three-technique. Adesanya came on to the radar of a few schools late, including Illinois. A late bloomer out of high school, Adesanya went the junior college route and grew into an athletic DE/OLB hybrid. He's an ideal fit for the LEO position at Illinois and should see action right away if he is able to grasp the defensive schemes. A late surge by Pitt had some concerned, but ultimately Adesanya chose to be an Illini following his visit and stuck with it, eventually electing not to visit Pitt.
So it's not that they didn't get a couple of good players, because they absolutely did, but given the needs moving forward, this is an area where the Illini really needed to land another player or two.
Linebacker wasn't a major position of need in 2015 after Illinois signed a trio in 2014, but what the two signees this year bring to the table is a level of athleticism that isn't currently on the roster. Linebackers like Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina are both heady linebackers, but don't necessarily possess that quick change of direction that helps them make more plays in space.
Julian Jones and Justice Williams are both long and athletic outside linebackers who can cover a lot of ground. For as many times as Illinois got beat around the edge of the line this year when linebackers either over-pursued or couldn't set the edge, adding players like Jones and Williams will instantly make the defense faster and more aggressive. It is very likely that with established veterans like Monheim and Svetina being joined by promising redshirt freshman Tre Watson, that Williams and Jones will first see extended action on special teams, but depending on how the duo develops, they might just see action situationally as freshmen on defense. At the very least, I wouldn't expect either to redshirt because of what they can bring to special teams right away.
The loss of graduating safety Zane Petty may not be felt quite yet, but after being one of the leaders in tackling for Illinois last year, his departure leaves a gap in the Illinois secondary that will be crucial to fill moving forward. Jevaris Little is a possibility at the position, but has not played starters' reps yet in his career and has been limited mostly to special teams play. James Crawford and Darwyn Kelly are two other possibilities in the defensive backfield, and James Crawford may float between STAR and safety again this year.
But the addition of Pat Nelson and Trenard Davis gives Illinois two future athletes in the secondary. Davis, like HS teammate Desmond Cain, played both ways for American Heritage, but is currently projected to the defensive side of the ball. His speed, agility, and range make him a good fit for the free safety spot. He may see action on the offensive side of the ball now and then, but athleticism at the safety position is always welcome. Pat Nelson is built like a mack truck and often played up in the box for Hales. Originally I thought he may be a good candidate for the STAR position, but with plenty of depth there, Nelson is likely to end up at strong safety and brings a toughness and ability to step up into the box and be a factor against the run.
V'Angelo Bentley will play his final season for Illinois this fall. The veteran has done it all for Illinois, but along the way has played a LOT of reps. Darius Mosely has gradually improved, and should again start across from Bentley. Caleb Day played out of necessity at the end of the season, but showed that he is starting to tap into the potential everyone saw when he was coming out of high school. Unfortunately, Jaylen Dunlap has spent most of his Illinois career trying to get healthy, so Illinois can always use more depth at the position.
The grade here isn't because these guys don't have a ton of potential, because that's probably what they have the most of right now. But both cornerback signees for Illinois in 2015 are mostly unproven at this point.
Frank Sumpter was a relative unknown to Illinois fans when he unexpectedly announced his commitment to the Illini. Part of the mystery surrounding Sumpter was related to his transfer from Bedford to powerhouse Glenville for his senior year. However, despite leading the large classification of high school football in the state of Ohio in interceptions, Sumpter still remained a relative unknown. Sumpter could be a real steal if he makes the transition to the Big Ten collegiate level. Additionally, Sumpter continues the tradition of "Ginn Academy" players at Illinois. If there is one thing Sumpter doesn't lack, though, it's confidence and swagger, and that should help him at the collegiate level if he channels it properly.
Watkins, however, was a very late addition to the Illini. An elite track athlete, Watkins also stepped his game up a lot his senior season. Yet another two-way player, Watkins projects as a corner for Illinois and displayed good agility and a quick backpedal from the snap. He will benefit from adding some weight to handle a more physical brand of football, but Watkins, like Sumpter, could end up being a steal when all is said and done.