IlliniInquirer.com will break down each position group daily for the next nine days.
Day 1: Quarterbacks
Day 2: Running backs
Day 3: Wide receivers
Day 4: Tight ends
Day 5: Offensive line
Strongside defensive end
Starter: Jihad Ward, senior
Defensive lines are supposed to stop the run and rush the passer. The Illini defensive line has been horrific at both the last two seasons, allowing the most rushing yards per game (238.9) and registering the second-fewest amount of sacks (38, ahead of only Purdue, 34) in the Big Ten from 2013-14.
But there is hope: this is most impressive-looking front than any Illinois defensive line since future-NFLers Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan filled out Illini uniforms in 2012. This simply looks more like a middling Big Ten defensive line. And if Illinois can get mediocre Big Ten production out of its defensive line, the defense -- and the team -- can take a big step forward.
No player recruited by Beckman to Illinois has passed the eye test more than Jihad Ward. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound mammoth will get a chance to play in the NFL based solely on his frame and his plus athleticism. How high he gets drafted next spring will depend on his production during the 2015 season.
Ward was thrown into the fray immediately last season with mixed results. He made plays based on his physical gifts but looked lost at times. Yet, Ward played his best down the stretch, and then simply dominated spring ball. He might not lead the team in sacks, but when he uses his long arms well to create separation, he is incredibly difficult to block one-on-one. If he receives double teams, he's doing his job and should open up teammates to make plays. He has the potential to be the best disruptor and difference-maker on the Illini defense during the Beckman era. Now, he must effectively use those gifts.
Kenny Nelson is the lankiest of the defensive lineman but is small-waisted and doesn't have much power nor a frightening burst. Injuries limited him to just five games last season (3.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack). Illinois hopes he can be a reliable rotation piece, but don't expect a consistent disruptor.
Paul James III looks like an SEC recruit. Tall, chiseled and athletic. He just doesn't have many reps yet. If he gets focused, Illinois could have another difference maker. Add him to the list of third-year players with a lot of potential but a ton to prove. UPDATE 8/6/15: Paul James III has withdrawn from the team, though coach Tim Beckman would not detail why. James III had struggled to stay on the practice field during his career for non-injury reasons. James III had been slotted in the third spot at SDE behind Ward and Nelson, so this move shouldn't hurt much this year. Beckman said a LEO, like Sean Adesanya or Dawuane Smoot, could learn SDE to provide depth. This is more a future issue, as Illinois currently doesn't have a non-senior on the roster recruited to play the SDE position.
Confession time: I've loved Rob Bain ever since he switched from offensive line to defensive line after his true freshman season (he redshirted). Bain probably isn't a star. He doesn't have the athleticism or quickness for that. But I've always loved his pure strength (he's benched 600 pounds and owns most of the current weight room records) and tenacity. He's a Big Ten brute and doesn't quit on plays. If he continues to progress with his technique, Bain looks like the consistent middle-of-the-field plugger Illinois sorely needs. Bain suffered a torn meniscus during the spring but he is expected to be fully healthy for Week 1.
The rest is a big question. Jarrod “Chunky” Clements has shown flashes of brilliance (6.0 TFL last season) but, unsurprisingly, played like a young player (i.e. inconsistent) during his first two seasons. He could be the interior disruptor Illinois needs – could. That's a common theme of the Illinois defense this year. A lot of these third- and fourth-year players have the potential to be Big Ten difference-makers. Now, they must show it.
Teko Powell looks and sometimes plays like a Big Ten starting caliber starting defensive tackle. The problem is that he hasn't played enough. Powell received a medical redshirt after missing all but three games last season after re-aggravating a foot injury he's dealt with during his entire Illinois career. He sat out this spring as well. Foot injuries on 300 pounders never seem to go away, so it's difficult to count on Powell for an entire season.
Joe Fotu didn't play much (seven games, including just three Big Ten games) in his first season at Illinois. The JUCO transfer slimmed down a bit though, added quickness and had a good spring. He received a bunch of reps due to injuries ahead of him. Like Nelson, Illinois is looking for Fotu to just be a solid rotation piece.
Redshirt freshman Tito Odenigbo was one of the brightest spots of the spring. He may have played his way into the two deep after a strong spring game (3.0 TFL) and looks like a future starter. Three-star Chicago native Jamal Milan was a much-needed get in the Class of 2015, but he should be redshirted. Jihad Ward could play here too, and may shift inside on passing downs anyway.