Jeremy Werner

What I learned in Rantoul: Illini defense

Publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down everything he learned about the Illini defense at Camp Rantoul

Read Jeremy's Camp Rantoul breakdown of the Illini offense.

After more than 20 hours of watching pratice, here's what the Illini learned about the Illini defense.

Defensive line

- No group has taken a bigger leap than the Illini defensive line. After getting crushed in the run game the last two seasons and providing little pass rush, the group must take a step forward for the Illini defense -- and the team -- to take the next step. This probably isn't a top half of the Big Ten defensive line, but it's a deeper, bigger, stronger, more athletic group, capable of producing like a middle-of-the-pack defensive line. Now, they must do it.

- Senior strongside defensive end Jihad Ward's knee injury -- which will knock him out for at least two games -- is a bummer. Ward is a monster (6-foot-6, 285 pounds) with monster potential. Ward isn't the quickest or the fastest, but he's a good athlete with great strength and length. To start last season, though, Ward was just running around hoping his talent would help him make plays. By the end of the season, you could see that the game was clicking a bit for him. Before the injury, he was putting it all together. He's a smarter football player, using those long arms to consistently get separation from offensive linemen. He's a solid pass rusher but Ward's biggest presence is against the run -- something the Illini need against the run-heavy Big Ten West. He sets an edge, keeps it and often draws double teams, opening up teammates to make plays. Ward will miss at least the first two games (against Kent State and Western Illinois at home). The Illini would like him back on its trip to North Carolina, but he might be a bit rusty. Hopefully he knocks the rust off by the time Big Ten play starts, because the Illini are going to need him. Ward should be drafted by an NFL team next spring. His production this season will determine just how high.

- With Ward out, the best defensive player at Camp Rantoul likely was junior Dawuane Smoot. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound junior switched from the hybrid, pass-rushing LEO position to SDE to fill in for Ward. If any positive comes out of Ward's injury, it's that the Illini will get an early glimpse at its 2016 defensive line. With Ward and senior Kenny Nelson set to graduate and after Paul James III withdrew from the university, Smoot will stay at SDE next season. While Smoot doesn't have the ideal length for the position, he has the strength to set an edge -- though he must continue to adapt to his run-stuffing responsibilities on the strong side. Smoot has the best mix of strength and burst in the front four. He showed glimpses of it last season, but looked sharper and more consistent during camp. He was the defensive standout of the team's first scrimmage ("sacking" -- tapping the shoulder of -- the quarterback a handful of times). Several junior defenders have the potential to have a breakout season. I'd give Smoot the best odds. He should be the team's best pass rusher (hopefully more than 7.0 sacks).

- The strongside spot is really thin. Senior Kenny Nelson is the tallest player on the team (almost 6-foot-7), but has an extremely thin waist and chest. He doesn't have a great burst off the edge either, which is why Smoot will start. But Nelson is experienced and is solid at setting an edge in the run game. After losing James III, though, Illinois must add depth to this position and may need to add a junior-college recruit to the 2016 class. The third-string SDE right now is walk-on Brandon Roberts.

- The Illini finally have decent depth at defensive tackle. Their third guy this season probably would have been their No. 1 defensive tackle in 2013. The best of the bunch during camp was Jarrod "Chunky" Clements. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound junior is a great fit for the three-technique in the Illini defense's one-gap system because he has a good burst off the line and can be disruptive in both the run and pass game. Like Smoot, he showed flashes last season (6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) but also looked lost at times. He's stronger and smarter now and looks the part of a solid Big Ten defensive tackle.

- The Illini are so happy to see Teko Powell back on the field. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior played just three games last season (he received a medical redshirt) after suffering a re-fracture of a foot injury that kept him out most of the 2014 spring, as well. Powell suffered a minor knee injury during camp that limited him for a few days (he returned late last week), but he has looked pretty healthy on that foot, which is supported by specialized orthopedics. Powell has Big Ten size and strength with a little burst as well. He has the versatility to play both nose tackle and the 3 technique and just gives the Illini much-needed depth in the middle.

- Junior nose tackle Rob Bain isn't a star, but he might terrify some opponents. He looks like the Batman villan of the same name (though supervillain Bane spells it differently). He's one of those hard-nosed, glue guys who good defenses need. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior is the strongest guy on the team and the nastiest, most physical defensive tackle. He doesn't have a great burst or athleticism. He must continue to work on gaining leverage because he won't lose many one-on-one strength battles. But Bain is probably a bigger, stronger, better Austin Teitsma, the Illini's most consistent defensive tackle the past two seasons.

- I like redshirt freshman Tito Odenigbo. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Ohio native isn't great at one thing, but he should be solid across the board with a little more seasoning. He followed a nice spring with a solid training camp, playing mostly defensive tackle with a few reps at strongside defensive end. Odenigbo is a solid No. 4 defensive tackle and should be a solid rotational guy for the future.

- The surprise of camp, for me, was true freshman Jamal Milan. The three-star prospect wasn't expected to be a factor this season -- and he still may redshirt -- but he's put himself into the conversation for immediate playing time. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Chicago native looks like a squatty nose tackle but has the quicks and athleticism to be a disruptor in the 3 technique.

- Ward's injury forces LEO Carroll Phillips into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior is one of the Illini's best athletes and most versatile players. Phillips will line up at LEO in the base defense and at linebacker in the nickel and dime defenses. He has the burst to wreck havoc off the edge and the speed and athleticism to cover running backs, tight ends and receivers in coverage. Phillips should hold up fine against the running attacks of Kent State and Western Illinois, but he might not have the strength to hold an edge against Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Phillips is one of the wild cards for the 2015 season. He has the talent to be the Illini's best pass rusher, but hasn't always shown the best awareness on the field. Will he bring it consistently?

- The staff likes redshirt freshman LEO Henry McGrew. Tough player with good athleticism had a nice spring game. He'll receive a big opportunity as the LEO backup early on.

- It's tough to get a read on two players: senior DT Joe Fotu and junior college transfer LEO Sean Adesanya. Fotu didn't participate in camp at all due to injury and Adesanya was really limited by a hamstring injury. Fotu may have lost his spot in the rotation to Milan, though if Fotu can serviceably handle the fifth spot, Illinois may be wise to redshirt Milan. Adesanya is a good athlete but needs reps since, unlike other JUCO transfers, he didn't arrive until this summer and missed spring practice.


- Illinois is OK at linebacker. There's some experience here, but are there any playmakers? The ceiling of this group feels a bit limited due to a lack of high-end speed and athleticism, but the defensive line could go a long way to help free them up. This group has a little bit of depth, but not much.

- Senior linebacker Mason Monheim has missed the last week of camp due to a minor ankle injury. But if anyone can avoid some time off, it's the 6-foot-1, 235-pound team captain. Monheim already has 37 career starts and is on his way to finishing among the Illini's all-time leading tacklers. He's more solid than spectacular, but you know what you're getting out of Monheim. He needs to better avoid getting caught up in the wash and Illinois would like to see more of the big-play threat that they saw at the end of last season. Monheim will rack up tackles, but the Illini also need the senior to rack up some game-changing plays.

- Add T.J. Neal to the list of juniors who have to prove it on the field. Neal has good size (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), solid athleticism, some big-hit ability and, now, some experience.. But he was maddeningly inconsistent last season, his first as a starter, too often trying to use the truck stick instead of just making the fundamental tackle. But he ended the season well (6.5 tackles for loss). With Monheim out last week, Neal had the opportunity to take more of a leadership role (a role he'll have to assume next season). Neal isn't nearly as instinctive as former Illini Jonathan Brown but has some similar physical traits. He should benefit from an improved defensive line. But it's his time now. Let's see what he's got.

- Depth behind Monheim and Neal took a hit with junior Mike Svetina suffering a setback in his recovery from a fractured foot that held him out all of last season. He is still in a walking boot and doesn't look close to contributing on the field.

- LaKeith Walls is now the No. 3 inside linebacker. After switching between running back and safety his first few seasons, Walls has found a home at the defense's second level. His primary role will be in the nickel and dime offense. Walls adds speed and length to those subpackages and can blanket receivers, running backs and tight ends. In the base defense, he is reliable in his assignments but can be overpowered too often. Walls is a solid depth piece but can he hold up as a serviceable starter during Big Ten play? There are similar questions for B.J. Bello. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior is a solid athlete with good length but struggles at times with physicality. He is most effective on special teams.

- If I had to guess the 2017 starters at ILB, I'd go with current redshirt freshman Tre Watson and freshman Julian Jones. Watson has a lot of similarities to Neal. He'll provide depth this season. Jones is one of the best athletes at the position. He just just needs to add strength and should redshirt.

- The position battle at hybrid STAR (linebacker/defensive back) is one of the most intriguing of camp. Eric Finney is the guy most likely to be in the right place at the right time. But the 6-foot, 220-pound senior is undersized and not all that athletic. Sophomore James Crawford is more likely to get caught out of position. But the 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore also made several big plays during camp, including a pick-six and a few pass break-ups. The STAR defender has to be physical against the run but also athletic and fast enough to cover receivers. Both Finney and Crawford will play. But a defense that needs more playmakers should probably play the potential playmaker (Crawford) more.

- Freshman Justice Williams is a good-looking athlete with a good frame (6-foot-3, 210 pounds). But the Texas native needs to redshirt and add strength.  Junior walk-on Cedric Doxy will provide depth as the third STAR.

- Junior LEO Carroll Phillips will get a lot of time at ILB during passing downs. He adds much-needed speed and athleticism at the position.


- Cornerback is the Illini's deepest position on defense. But like at linebacker, who are the playmakers? Senior V'Angelo Bentley is the best bet. He's a burner and already has touchdowns in his career on a kick return, a punt return, an interception return and a fumble recovery return. But he is limited by his size (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) on the perimeter against bigger receivers. He's an ideal nickelback, however, and does shift inside on passing downs. That's his moneymaker, lining up against slot receivers, recognizing the quarterback's intent and jumping routes.

- Eaton Spence has been a fixture in the Illini defense for three seasons, but you don't hear the Illini senior's name too often because he hasn't been a big-play threat. Spence has one interception, 11 pass breakups and one fumble recovery in 27 career starts. Spence isn't all that quick and struggles against faster receivers, but the 6-foot, 190-pound senior is physical in press coverage and fearless in run support.

- There isn't a big drop off to the second string. Junior Darius Mosely isn't as fast as Bentley or as physical as Spence, but he's kind of a mix of the two. Mosely did not have a very good start to camp, missed a few assignments and got beat deep. But he played better as camp progressed and seems solidified as the third corner. He usually plays on the sideline in the nickel and dime packages with Bentley sliding into the nickelback position.

- Of all the non-seniors in the secondary, I'm highest on the potential of cornerback Jaylen Dunlap (I dubbed him a breakout candidate). The 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore has the best mix of size, speed and athleticism (which could make him a PBU machine). He had brighter flashes than Mosely as freshmen before injuries sidelined him for all but one game of his second season (he received a medical redshirt). Dunlap needs to continue to gain experience and physicality. He will be a starter next season and could push Mosely and the seniors this season.

- Davontay Kwaaning was the No. 5 guy but has been in a walking boot the past few weeks. Redshirt freshman Chris James has received many earfuls from co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks. He's been torn up by the team's top receivers. He must get more physical. He's thinking too much right now. Illinois will need him to improve greatly before next season, when he should crack the two-deep.

- The safety position should be better this season. Senior Clayon Fejedelem (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) is the hardest hitter of the bunch and a pretty good athlete as well. The former walk-on and NAIA transfer adapted pretty well to Big Ten football late last season and already looks like one of the most reliable players in the back seven. You hope he can be the center fielder who picks off a few poorly-thrown passes.

- Junior safety Taylor Barton has had ups and downs in his career and had ups and downs during camp. He has some good physical tools. His frame (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) allows him to come up and pack a punch in run support. He had a rough freshman season full of missed assignments but improved greatly in his reponsibilities as a sophomore. I still worry about him in space against really good athletes, but Barton has some decent athleticism.

- Safety depth is a big issue though. One of the more disappointing players of the past few seasons continues to be junior Caleb Day. The former four-star recruit has all the physical tools and is one of the team's best athletes, but he just hasn't developed into a sound football player. Safeties have to be relied on, and Day hasn't earned that trust yet in practice. The potential is still there. You hope that the light clicks on once he gets on the field in real games.

- Behind Day, I'm not sure anyone excites you. Darwyn Kelly is really inconsistent. Jevaris Little is a special teams mainstay and might be the fourth guy, when healthy. Junior Dillan Cazley is undersized. Freshman Patrick Nelson -- who suffered a torn ACL this spring and will miss the season -- likely would've been in the two-deep here.

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