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
Day 8: Linebackers
Backups: Darius Mosely, junior; Jaylen Dunlap, redshirt sopohomore; Davontay Kwaaning, senior; Dillan Cazley, junior; Chris James, redshirt freshman; Frank Sumpter, freshman; Cameron Watkins, freshman
No team in the Big Ten has been passed on fewer times the last two years than Illinois. Why pass? Big Ten teams ran for an average -- an AVERAGE -- of 280-plus yards per game against Illinois over the past two seasons. Still, the Illinois secondary can't hang its hat on much. The Illini ranked last in the conference in pass efficiency defense the past two seasons. Like every other defensive group, many Illini defensive backs were forced to play too young early in their careers. But youth is no longer an excuse.
Senior Eaton Spence has 27 career starts. Senior V'Angelo Bentley has 20 career starts. Even junior Darius Mosely has five career starts. This trio is ridiculously experienced, but they've experienced a lot of downs so far. It's time for them to turn into proven playmakers.
Spence is the physical corner. The 6-foot , 190-pound senior matches up well against taller, stronger receivers and isn't afraid to come up and lay a hit in run support (he was sixth on the team in tackles last season). Spence is solid but lacks top-end speed and hasn't made many big plays during his career (11 pass break ups and one interception in three seasons).
Bentley is the potential playmaker. Fans are well aware of the senior's kick/punt return success, but he finally brought that breakaway ability to the defense last season. Last season, Bentley returned an interception for a touchdown against Texas State and had the game-winning fumble return for a touchdown against Minnesota. Bentley is small (5-foot-9) and struggles against bigger receivers. But he has great closing speed. If he anticipates more plays, he can be the gamebreaker in the secondary. But so far during his career, he has just two interceptions in 34 games.
Mosely is a bit of a mix of both Bentley and Spence. He's 5-foot-11 with plus straight-line speed but has enough size and enough of the physical mentality to help in run support. Mosely doesn't have the quickest hips, so he struggles at times to turn and run with the fastest receivers. He's been on the field a lot during his first two seasons and has the potential to steal a bit of playing time from the more nickelback-ish Bentley.
In the long run, it may be a blessing in disguise that Jaylen Dunlap took a medical redshirt for an ankle injury last season. Dunlap, likely a starter next season with Mosely, will give the Illini a veteran presence in future seasons. This season, he boosts the Illini depth and gives the Illini another tall (6-foot-1), athletic cover corner. Dunlap was the least heralded corner of his class (behind Mosely and Dillan Cazley) but may have shown the most promise as a freshman. Cazley is buried on the depth chart but has carved out a niche on special teams.
Davontay Kwaaning is a great story. The former walk-on was an after-thought on the roster but earned an opportunity due to injury last season and made the most of it, playing in 12 games and recording six tackles and one pass break-up. The Chicago native didn't originally plan on returning -- he graduated this summer -- but after getting a taste of Big Ten play, he came back for his final season of eligibility. Redshirt freshman Chris James will likely need to find a role on special teams, while freshmen Frank Sumpter and Cameron Watkins are redshirt candidates.
Starters: Taylor Barton, junior; Clayton Fejedelem, senior
Injured: Patrick Nelson, freshman (torn ACL -- out for the season)
Let's start with one of my favorite stories on the Illini football team. During spring ball in 2014, I saw this smaller guy whipping around the football field, tackling bigger, stronger players and catching some of Illinois' faster skill players by surprise. I asked one of the Illinois defensive coaches about this No. 20, this Clayton Fejedelem (pronounced FEJ-uh-lem). To my surprise, the coach said, "That guy will start for us."
I didn't know if that was a negative (Illinois having no better options) or a positive (hard worker rewarded). I tend to be an optimist, so I'm going with the latter, especially after the way Fejedelem finished his junior season (51 tackles, two PBUs, fumble recovery). But if you don't know Fejedelem's story, here's a quick recap. Fejedelem starred St. Xavier -- an NAIA powerhouse -- for his first two seasons, alongside one of his older brothers. After winning a national title his freshman season (and the team Newcomer of the Year award) and accumulating a 26-3 record at St. Xavier, Fejedelem wanted to test himself further, transferring to Illinois as a walk on. He redshirted 2013 and proved enough during that 2014 spring that he earned a role in the two-deep.
These are the kind of underdog stories that make college sports great. But don't underestimate Fejedelem. He can be an impact player -- not just a fill in until someone else comes along. He's fast, strong and has that classic physical football player mentality, so he's not afraid to lay a big hit. He's held onto his starting spot over more touted players behind him.
I've been pretty tough on Taylor Barton at times. The Florida native had a rough, like really rough, redshirt freshman season. He was forced into playing time and was overwhelmed and run over. He often missed assignments and took bad angles to ball carriers. He eventually lost his starting job midway through that freshman season. But to be fair, he too often was left to make hard-to-make tackles in the open field against some of the nation's best running backs. Barton made great strides last season, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten. He racked up 100 tackles,one interception and two forced fumbles. The bearded Barton has the size (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) and speed combo you want in a safety and coaches say he knows the defense as well as anyone. Barton made a big leap from an abysmal freshman season. The Illini need him to make similar strides after a solid sophomore season. An improved defensive line certainly would make his job easier.
Caleb Day was a four-star recruit but after two seasons, Illinois has gotten little production out of him. Day is one of the defense's best athletes. Illinois has tried to get him on the field -- the staff has repped him at cornerback, safety and receiver -- Day hasn't shown enough reliability or consistency to crack the starting lineup. While he has another season of eligibility and Fejedelem will graduate after 2015, Day doesn't have much time left to live up to his lofty recruiting rating.
Depth is shaky and took a hit when freshman Patrick Nelson tore his ACL during a non-contact drill this spring. The coaches thought the strong, hard-hitting freshman was good enough to make an early impact. Jevaris Little is a special teams mainstay and can play in a pinch. Darwyn Kelly has not yet seen the field. He redshirted his freshman season and did not play last season due to injuries.