Inexperienced Illini linebackers learn from a legend

Illinois hopes a wealth of knowledge from its coaching staff can help make up for a dearth of experience at linebacker

CHAMPAIGN - Tre Watson admits that Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson’s name didn’t resonate with him as much as it did with older generations.

“Obviously, he was playing before I was even born,” said Watson, a 19-year-old redshirt sophomore linebacker. “I had to do some research.”

Watson went to YouTube and Wikipedia to learn more about Nickerson, who played linebacker under Illini head coach Lovie Smith when Smith was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach. Other Illini players knew a bit more about Nickerson.

“I definitely knew who Hardy Nickerson was being a linebacker,” junior linebacker James Crawford said.

Five-time Pro Bowler. Four-time All Pro selection. 1990s All-Decade Team selection.

Bleacher Report ranked Nickerson the 14th-best linebacker of the modern era.

“It’s like you’re meeting a celebrity,” Crawford said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this dude really is my coach.’ That was pretty cool. He’s one of the greatest linebackers to play. To have him to coach me and mold me to be a good linebacker, that’s something I look up to.”

Nickerson isn’t the only linebacker legend on the staff either. Linebackers coach Tim McGarigle holds the FBS career record with 545 career tackles during his four-year starting career at Northwestern.

The hope is that the wealth of linebacker lore on the staff makes up for the Illini’s dearth of experience on its shallow depth chart.

During its history, Illinois -- alma mater of linebackers Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Dana Howard, John Holocek, Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice (he played rush linebacker) and J Leman -- sometimes has been referred to as "Linebacker U."  

For Illinois to implement that moniker back to active status, Nickerson and McGarigle will have to do a lot of teaching. Class is now in session.

“Definitely knowing the pedigree that both (Nickerson) and Coach McGarigle bring, that’s amazing," Watson said. "That’s outstanding to work with on a daily basis. Hopefully, I can translate that into my own game and all of our games.”

Limited options

The Illini’s most experienced linebacker senior Mike Svetina (16 career starts, 97 career tackles), only played six combined games during the last two seasons due to a foot injury. Of the returners, Crawford -- a weakside linebacker -- totaled the most starts (four) and tackles (36) last season.

Watson, currently repping at middle linebacker with Svetina, showed flashes last season with 21 tackles in a reserve role as a redshirt freshman. During the first two practices, redshirt freshman Justice Williams repped with the first team at strongside linebacker.

“It’s kind of starting off blank slate,” Svetina said. “Everyone’s on a flat plain. No one really knows the defense all that well. Just rallying together, learning it together will be critical for us to nail down the defense.”

The rest of the depth chart features seldom-used redshirt sophomore Austin Roberts, converted fullback Nathan Echard.

“Our depth chart right now if very fluid,” Nickerson said. “We’re all new here. The guys know they have a clean slate and everybody’s competing. That’s what we want. We want a very competitive environment and have our best players emerge.”

The depth chart -- which already lost four-year starter Mason Monheim to graduation -- is missing two players who would have been on the short list of most talented options.

After his defensive coordinator and linebackers coach were not retained and two of his linebacker classmates (Lakeith Walls and B.J. Bello) transferred, two-year starter T.J. Neal, who would’ve been the team’s top returning tackler (109), decided to transfer to Auburn for his final season of eligibility. He will play immediately for the Tigers due to the graduate transfer rule.

“I called him and talked to him and he said he was set on leaving,” Nickerson said.

Reinforcements?

Sophomore Julian Jones is one of the team’s most talented linebackers. But he continues to serve an indefinite suspension after he was arrested on allegations of aggravated sexaul assault for an alleged incident that occurred in his homestate of Georgia.

Jones is on campus taking classes and is still on the team’s roster, but he is not participating in team activities. Jones' availability depends on the result of the legal proces.

“His situation is ongoing,” Nickerson said. “I’ve met him. After looking at him on video, he looks like a player that will help us as well.”

Reinforcements arrive this summer with four incoming freshmen recruited by former coach Bill Cubit’s staff: Dele' Harding, Jake Hansen, Christion Abercrombie and Ayo Shogbonyo. Harding, Scout.com’s 23rd-ranked inside linebacker from the Class of 2016, likely has the best chance to make an immediate impact. Given the lack of options, the Illini likely will need some contribution from the greenhorns.

“I think the group has sufficient talent,” Nickerson said. “Like a lot of teams, I’m sure a lot of teams across the country right now, everybody’s looking for depth. I think we do have enough talent.”

It's up to Nickerson and McGarigle to find and develop the Illini's inexperienced bunch into a capable group behind what should be a strong defensive line. Or they must recruit the necessary talents to make a big enough impact in future seasons.

In the meantime, the current Illini players should listen to what Nickerson has to say. As Watson found out, a quick YouTube search shows that Nickerson knows how to play linebacker.

“I don’t talk a lot about myself (and my career) in front of the guy because it’s all about them,” Nickerson said. “I’m trying to get each of them to reach their full potential. That’s what we’re working hard to try to get accomplished.”

Linebacker breakdown

Nickerson broke down the prototype of each of the three linebackers -- WILL (weakside), MIKE (middle) and SAM (strongside) -- in Lovie Smith’s system.

Weakside ("WILL"): “Our WILL linebacker is a guy who’s a playmaker type. You can think of Lance Briggs or Derrick Brooks. Those are prototypical guys, I guess. We’re not particularly looking for a particular body type. We’re just looking for a guy who’s very instinctual, that has some speed and has the ability to make plays.”

Middle ("MIKE"): “Middle linebacker, a sturdier guy, a bigger guy. But again, a guy who has range that can run. Kind of like the WILL linebacker but maybe a little bit bigger guy that has good instincts, a leader. That’s the guy who has to stand in front of the huddle, make all our calls. He’s going to be the  guy who’s making a lot of adjustments. He’s the guy that has the ear of every other defensive player on the field. So that guy has to be a very, very good leader.”

Strongside ("SAM"): “SAM linebacker is kind of like a hybrid between the MIKE and the WILL. He’s a guy that has to have the ability to play in space because he plays in a spot that you usually have a nickel in a lot of offensive formations. He has to have some speed to him and have some savvy about him. He’s a guy that also gets opportunities to rush the passer a little bit. He’s got to be a very versatile player.”


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