IlliniInquirer.com is breaking down each position group daily as Illinois starts fall training camp.
Day 1: Quarterbacks
Day 2: Running backs
Day 3: Wide receivers
Day 4: Tight ends
Day 5: Offensive line
Day 6: Defensive line
Day 7: The hybrids, LEO and STAR
Illinois has a deep group here. Does it have playmakers? That might depend on the performance of the defensive line in front of it. There are a lot of guys who can chase and tackle here, but Illinois needs more game-changing plays out of this group.
Assuming health, senior Mason Monheim (294 career tackles) will finish among the top-10 in school history in career tackles and has the chance to pass notable names on the list, like Dick Butkus (374), Danny Clark (381) and J Leman (407). Monheim might not have the ceiling of a NFL legend (Butkus), a NFL mainstay (Clark) or an All-American (Leman) – he's not a guy NFL scouts spend a lot of time on – but he has been the model of consistency since his premature placement in the starting lineup as a freshman. You know what you're getting from Monheim – a team leader – every game, and while it might not always be spectacular, it's always productive. Illinois needs more players like that.
Assuming the Illini defensive line takes a step forward, Monheim – who has had to fend off way too many free blockers thanks to porous defensive lines the past two seasons --- is probably in for his best season yet. His next step? Making more big plays. He showed improvement there last season, finishing career highs in interceptions (two), pass break ups (two) and forced fumbles (four).
T.J. Neal was my pick to have a breakthrough 2014 season. While he kept the starting job at the MIKE (middle linebacker) spot as a redshirt sophomore and finished fourth on the team with 98 tackles, he was wildly inconsistent. Neal too often lost gap responsibilities and too often went for the big hit (think “truck stick” on the Madden video game) rather than the fundamental tackle. He still showed flashes of play-making ability (6.5 TFL, one interception, four PBU, three hurries) and gained more consistency (like the rest of the defense) as the season waned. I hate to sound like a broken record. But add Neal to the category of Illini junior defenders who can no longer use youth as an excuse; it's time to produce (pardon the rhyme).
Mike Svetina's return (he redshirted last season due to a broken foot) gives the Illini depth. As a sophomore, Svetina was miscast at the STAR position (he started 11 of 12 games) and struggled mightily in open space on the perimeter, too often defending receivers. While he played defensive back in high school, his natural college position is a more exclusive in-the-box linebacker position, where he can make the read, scrape and clean up the mess in traffic. He provides great experience to the second string.
LaKeith Walls has played multiple positions at Illinos but found a home last year as a nickel linebacker. He made more of an impact late in the season, notching two sacks over the last three games. Walls hasn't shown the frame to hold up against ground-and-pound teams but is a valuable piece on passing downs. He has good sideline-to-sideline speed and is capable of chasing down running backs or running down the seam with wide receivers. He's also a constant on special teams.
B.J. Bello has flipped between STAR and inside linebacker but is more of a special teams contributor at this point but is a nice veteran to have on the third string.