The dark horse: Caleb Day
Departing senior cornerbacks Eaton Spence (39) and V'Angelo Bentley (32) combined for 71 career starts, including 69 of a possible 74 Illini cornerback starts the past three seasons. So, yeah, the Illini lose a lot of experience on the perimeter of their defense.
Darius Mosely is the only returning Illini with starting experience (five career starts -- three in 2013 and two in 2014). That'd suggest that Mosely, the third cornerback last season, has the inside track to a starting spot. But Mosely was subpar last season. After accruing 64 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries over his first two seasons, Mosely totaled just three tackles and had no PBUs as a junior. He looked to have slow hips and struggled to turn and run with speedy wideouts. Lovie Smith's defense also usually prefers longer, more physical corners, which could further hinder the 5-foot-11 Mosely. Maybe it was just a down year for Mosely, but he needs to show improvement to be a starting-caliber corner.
Jaylen Dunlap probably has the best chance of locking down a starting spot this spring. The redshirt junior didn't make a big impact in 2015 (six tackles and one blocked punt), but he has the talent that excites coaches. The 6-foot-1 Chicago native has the length and athleticism to play in this defense and though he is a bit thin (190 pounds), he showed his freshman season (26 tackles, two PBUs) that he plays with some physicality. Dunlap probably had more natural talent than Spence, but the previous staff just deemed that he wasn't yet as trustworthy. He'll have nothing but opportunity now.
The previous staff added JUCO transfer Ahmari Hayes in January to give them even more length. The 6-foot-3 California native has long arms that could allow him to gain leverage on wide receivers. He's thin (185 pounds) and must add strength this offseason. Enrolling early will give him the chance to make an immediate impact. Spring will give the staff an idea of how he deals with the physicality and speed of the Big Ten.
Speaking of speed, redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins has plenty of it. The former high school track star also has decent length (6-foot). After a year in the weight room, he may have a shot to push for a spot in the nickel or dime packages. Sophomore Chris James looked rough in fall camp last season. He has some similarities to Mosely -- not all that big or fast. This is a big spring for him.
The wild card here is Caleb Day. The Ohio native came to Illinois with a bit of hype. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior is one of the best athletes on the team. But he's never found a home. Tim Beckman tried him at three positions: cornerback, wide receiver and safety. But Day never clicked at any. All of a sudden, Day has just one more season to make a real impact. Bill Cubit's staff had planned to move him from safety (he was the third safety last season) to cornerback to give Illinois more length, physicality and speed on the outside. Mike Phair was the defensive coordinator this winter. His defense was modeled after Smith's, so will they keep with the plans to move Day to corner? The Illini have some intriguing options at safety. If Patrick Nelson, Trenard Davis or Darwyn Kelly steps up and solidifies a safety role, Day could give the Illini its best option at corner. He may have the highest ceiling of any corner options, but Day so far hasn't come close to his ceiling at any position he's played.
The Illini will add two freshmen this summer who can play cornerback: Georgia native Evan Jones and East St. Louis product Stanley Green. Jones, a hard hitter who seems to fit as an in-the-box defensive back, eventually could move to safety. Green seems to fit the mold of what Smith wants at corner, but he needs time to develop.
Illinois got longer and athletic on the perimeter, but it lost a lot of experience. A pass rush from a proven defensive line would greatly help these green corners. Smith seems to have some press corners who fit his mold. It'll be interesting to see what he can shape out of them in 2016.