Mid-term grades: Illini defense and special teams

With Illinois on a bye after six of 12 regular-season games, Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner hands out mid-term grades for each Illinois position group. Today, he focuses on the defense and special teams.

Read Werner's mid-term grades on Illini offense here.

Big Ten stat rankings

  • Scoring defense: 8th (19.7 points per game)
  • Total defense: 8th (332.5 yards per game)
  • Rushing defense: 10th (151.3 yards per game)
  • Passing defense: 7th (181.2 yards per game)
  • Pass efficiency defense: 6th (106.0)
  • Opponent first downs: 6th (16.2 per game)
  • Opponent 3rd down conversion: 2nd  (22.3 percent)
  • Interceptions: 3rd (7)
  • Turnovers gained: T-6th (10)
  • Sacks: 14th (6)
  • Tackles for loss: T-2nd (48)
  • Turnovers gained: 7th (8)
  • Red-zone defense: 12th (86.7 percent)

Defensive line: B

Coming out of Camp Rantoul, I wrote that the defensive line was the Illini's most talented group -- and that's certainly shown on the field. Each of the four starters has a chance to play at the next level, and this group finally has the strength, experience and attitude to compete (and succeed) in the Big Ten.

New co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Phair has brought an attacking/aggressive identity to this group. He prioritizes burst off the line of scrimmage and getting up field. While that can leave the Illini exposed sometimes -- especially on screen plays and draws -- the mentality has translated to the Illini wrecking havoc at times in the backfield. The Illini rank 15th in the country in tackles for loss per game (8.0), up from 6.3 last season. This isn't a dominant front four but it's taken a big step forward into a middle-of-the-pack group.

Junior LEO Dawuane Smoot (11.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks) is establishing himself as one of the better pass rushers in the Big Ten. He's got a great burst off the line of scrimmage and is solidly strong against the run.

Defensive tackle Chunky Clements (7.0 TFLs, 0.5 sacks) also is has taken a big-time step up into becoming a big-time disruptor in the 3-technique. Nose tackle Rob Bain (17 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) lacks speed and burst but is stout against the run.

Some seemed to have had the idea that Jihad Ward (33 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 0.5 sacks) was a pass rusher. He's not. His NFL future is likely as a 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme. But he's really developed into a great edge settter. He uses his long arms to get separation and his immense size to push his defender up field. His best trait might be his ability to run and chase down the line of scrimmage. He has 18 solo tackles in six games, a lot for a defensive lineman.

Depth is the issue. The Illini could use another edge rusher, and Carroll Phillips (2.0 TFLs, two QBHs) is starting to emerge as he plays more on third downs (when the Illini sometimes shift Ward inside). Phillips likely will take over at LEO next season with Smoot likely moving to SDE.

There is a big dropoff ot the backups, which is a big concern in 2017 and beyond. Senior DE Kenny Nelson usually only plays a series or two a game. Senior DT Joe Fotu's return from suspension has given the Illini much-needed depth on the interior, but he's just a serviceable option for a few series per game. Redshirt freshman Tito Odenigbo has shown some flashes but needs some time to mature. The good news is that he won't have to compete for a starting spot until 2017 (with Bain and Clements back for one more year). One guy who has shown flashes, especially as a run stuffer, is redshirt freshman Henry McGrew. True freshman DT Jamal Milan suffered a knee injury after playing just one game but has a bright future ahead of him. Cubit hasn't given a timetable for his return this season.

Linebackers: C

Coming into the season, many talked about the returning experience of the Illini back seven. Experience is nice. For Illinois, it's meant that there aren't a lot of missed assignments from its starters. But I prefer talent.

Illinois lacks speed at linebacker and it showed at North Carolina. The Illini linebackers also struggle at times in maintaining their gaps (they aren't the strongest group) and with overpursuit (like during Iowa running back Jordan Canzeri's 75-yard touchdown run). Basically, the Illini linebackers are OK. They don't really kill the team, but they don't really lift the team.

Junior Mike linebacker T.J. Neal (53 tackles, 5.0 TFLs) had a much better first half than he had last season. He's still aggressive but much more sound fundamentally sound in breaking down and wrapping up defenders, while still giving some big hits.

Senior Will linebacker (weakside) Mason Monheim (46 tackles, 1.0 TFLs, 1 INT) is solid. He's going to finish his career with more tackles than all but about six defenders who have played at Illinois. He is easily better than any linebacker Illinois currently has on its bench. But is he an All-Big Ten candidate? No, and that's fine. But the Illini could use some more play-making out the senior. I think he's a better fit as a MLB in a 4-3 scheme than the WLB in a 4-2-5.

Backup LaKeith Walls plays in many subpackages, especially on passing downs and is a good pass defender. Monheim's starting job next season might be a competition between Walls, current redshirt freshman Tre Watson (10 tackles) -- who is one of the team's better special teams tacklers -- and freshman Julian Jones, who is playing special teams and has an intriguing combination of size and speed.

Like Monheim, senior STAR Eric Finney (19 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2 PBUs) doesn't have many great physical traits but he's reliable. He also forced the much-talked-about Tommy Armstrong Jr. third-down incompletion to give the Illinois offense the chance at its game-winning drive. But Finney is better against spread teams than power-run teams like Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. How will he hold up against those physical teams? Sophomore James Crawford (16 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 1 PBU also is getting a lot of playing time at STAR. He might not be as reliable as Finney yet but he has a higher upside due to his better length and sideline-to-sideline speed.

Expect current junior walk-on Cedric Doxy to compete with true freshman Justice Williams for the backup STAR spot next season.

Secondary: C+

This group has given up some big passing plays (North Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Iowa), but the big plays are fewer and more far between than previous seasons. This group has really shined in run support. All four starters are physical tacklers. One concern: the team had six interceptions in its first three games but just one in the past three, despite a similar amount of passes.

The biggest surprise to me has been senior cornerback V'Angelo Bentley (20 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 5 PBUs). The 5-foot-9 senior's lack of height sometimes hurts. A well-placed throw or a big receiver can take advantage of him, like North Carolina did. But Bentley is starting to turn into the team's shutdown corner with four PBUs during two Big Ten games. He was a big reason the Illini kept Nebraska' receiver Jordan Westerkamp to one catch for minus-1 yard and Iowa's No. 1 receiver, Matt VandeBerg, to two catches for 10 yards. He's the one Illini corner with great closing speed and has been a very physical, sound tackler despite his size. I've never been as high on Bentley's future as an NFL nickelback/kick returner.

Senior CB Eaton Spence (19 tackles, 1 PBU), the four-year starter, has been solid. His two INTs are one more than he'd had in the previous three seasons and he's a sound physical tackler. He just doesn't have great speed and struggles to stick with speedsters. Junior cornerback Darius Mosely has really struggled since camp. He struggles to quickly flip his hips and run. I'd like to see more of sophomore Jaylen Dunlap, who has the best combination of speed and size in his position group.

Clayton Fejedelem (55 tackles, 4 PBUs, 1 INT) might go from NAIA to Illinois walk-on to NFL training camp. The senior safety is the Illini's best tackler and hitter, and they'll need him to keep it up during the rest of Big Ten play. Fejedelem is a very aggressive player, sometimes to a fault. He's bit a few times on play-action or a crossing wide receiver, allowing a few deep passing touchdowns (North Carolina and Iowa).

Junior safety Taylor Barton got off to a hot start (3 INTs and 2.5 TFLs in first two games) and has been just solid since. Like the rest of the secondary, Barton has been physical (18 tackles last three games and 2 PBUs) though he doesn't have the best speed.

Depth at safety is a huge issue. Junior Caleb Day hasn't played much since serving a three-game suspension -- though he's been a difference-maker on special teams. He enters next season as the frontrunner for Fejedelem's starting spot, but that's a bit by default. Who else will provide competition? Jevaris Little has struggled in his safety playing time, Darwyn Kelly struggled during camp and Dillan Cazley appears more of a special teams player than safety. Injured freshman Patrick Nelson might be Day's toughest competition next season.

Special teams: C-

The kicking game has been inconsistent. Senior kicker Taylor Zalewski (8-for-13 FGs) started the season 4-for-4, then made just two of his next seven attempts (including the 51-yard game winner against Middle Tennessee) before going 2-for-2 vs. Iowa. He is 21-for-21 on extra points this season.

The Illini punting game is the worst in the Big Ten, last in yards per punt (39.4) and net yards per punt (31.7) -- the latter partly due to two huge returns by North Carolina's Ryan Switzer -- and Ryan Frain has just placed two punts inside the 20. 

The kickoff coverage team is OK, ranking ninth in the Big Ten (39.8 yard net average).

What lifts the special teams unit's grade is Bentley's return ability (sixth in the Big Ten in kick returns and fourth in punt returns) -- though he has let too many punts that should be fair catches hit the ground -- and the three blocked kicks.

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