IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner is breaking down each Illini football position group, what they're looking to add at each position in the Class of 2017 and their top targets.
Let's switch focus to the defense and start with the tone-setters: the defensive line.
What Illini have on the roster
Even without second-round draft pick Jihad Ward, this is the Illini's best looking defensive line depth charts since 2011 when Illinois had four NFL players: Whitney Mercilus, Glenn Foster, Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan. Just the year prior, NFL stud Corey Liuget was part of the group, though Mercilus (like Liuget, an eventual first-round draft pick) was just a little-known backup with a cool name then.
|DE||Dawuane Smoot, SR||Henry McGrew, R-SO||Sean Adesanya, R-SO||Brandon Jones, FR|
|DT||Chunky Clements, SR||Jamal Milan, R-FR||Kenyon Jackson, FR|
|DT||Robert Bain, SR||Tito Odenigbo, R-SO||Teko Powell, SR|
|DE||Carroll Phillips, SR||Gimel President, SR||
Brandon Roberts, JR
Tymir Oliver, FR
Smoot is one of the Big Ten's best pass rushers after a breakout junior season (15 TFLs, 8.0 sacks), and some early mock drafts (including Pro Football Focus and Rotoworld) list him as a possible first-round draft pick. He has a rare mix of speed and power that plays well in the Big Ten and should translate well to the next level.
Clements (11.5 TFLs last season) is a great fit as the disruptive three technique in Lovie Smith's system. Phillips, who has a great burst off the edge, worked his way into the starting lineup late in the fall and carried that momentum into a very strong spring.
Robert Bain missed most of the spring due to an injury but should be ready to go by the fall. The nose tackle is known for his brute strength but the staff is asking him to trim down a bit to gain some quickness off the ball.
In Bain's absence, Tito Odenigbo earned a bunch of first-team reps. He's not elite in anything but he should be a solid all-around rotation player and he has some versatility, which position coach Mike Phair likes.
Gimel President, a graduate transfer from Auburn, adds much-needed depth on the outside. He's not a great pass rusher, but he's solid all around -- exactly what the Illini need in the rotation. McGrew is strong against the run but doesn't have that quick of a step off the line of scrimmage. Sean Adesanya has been slowed by injuries but is a good athlete.
The possible breakout player here is Jamal Milan, who earned the No. 3 DT spot last season but played just one game due to a knee sprain. He missed time during spring ball but the staff was extra cautious with him. If healthy, Milan has the mix of burst and strength that could make him an instant impact player and future stalwart in the front four -- something the Illini need dearly.
Here's to hoping Teko Powell -- who has suffered three foot fractures in two years -- can stay healthy. But that foot seems like a ticking timebomb. Anything Powell -- who would have been a three-year starter and possible NFL prospect -- adds is a bonus at this point.
The Illini welcome three freshmen this spring but all should redshirt. Tymir Oliver seems to have the highest ceiling due to his size and versatility, Kenyon Jackson is really short but quick and tenacious and Brandon Jones is a project.
What Illini want in 2017
That depth chart above looks great. Except that all four starters and one of the top three rotation players are seniors. So here's what the 2017 defensive line depth chart may look like.
|DE||Henry McGrew, R-JR||Brandon Jones, R-FR||2017 recruit|
|DT||Jamal Milan, R-SO||Kenyon Jackson, R-FR||2017 recruit|
|DT||Tito Odenigbo, R-JR||Tymir Oliver, R-FR||2017 recruit|
|DE||Sean Adesanya, R-JR||
Brandon Roberts, SR
I think Milan can be a pro (though early injuries are a bit of a worry), and I think Odenigbo can be a solid starter. But barring some huge breakout from McGrew or Adesanya, they lack edge disruptors.
This is scary -- like 2013 and 2014 kind of scary -- and the main reason (along with quarterback) thatI think Illinois football will struggle immensely in 2017.
The Illini may look at some junior college prospects, but they should only take Jihad Ward-like prospects. This staff has a long leash, so they don't need to take fliers on guys to help them win right away. They should be more concerned with players who can make an impact in 2018 and beyond. Recruit and develop.
The Illini will use about four or five scholarships on defensive linemen in the Class of 2017. For many programs though, especially those who aren't conference title contenders, finding four or five legit power-five defensive line prospects is really difficult.
But Lovie can sell both early opportunity, Illinois' resurgence of NFL defensive line prospects (Ward, Smoot and Clements) and his history of developing defensive linemen at the NFL level.
While quarterback, running back and offensive line are huge positions of need in 2017, defensive line is No. 1 on the priority and wish lists.
There are few targets I'm watching more than Huntley (Ill.) defensive end Olalere Oladipo because 1) he fits a huge need; and 2) he is a huge early in-state test for the Illini. Oladipo recently has received offers from Michigan State and Penn State he recently told Ryan Easterling that Illinois, Indiana and Syracuse are recruiting him the hardest. The Illini have made him a priority and he has some relationships with other in-state priorities, like Micah Awodiran. Oladipo plans to make a summer decision.
Crete-Monee (Ill.) defensive tackle John Mitchell has kept quiet but Illinois was the first power-five program to offer and Syracuse is the only other power-five program to join the fray. The Illini have prioritized Mitchell, and commitments from in-state receivers Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith only should help. There is a group of tight 2017 in-state recruits, led by Smalling, that includes Mitchell and Crete-Monee teammate DB Juawan Treadwell. The Illini would love to wrap up this commitment by the fall. Oladipo and Mitchell would be a heck of a start up front.
Illinois, SMU and Kansas recently offered versatile Texas DL Noah Jones. The Illini envision the quick, sturdy Texan as a great fit as a three technique DT but he can also bump out and play DE on running downs. The Illini will host a satellite camp at his high school next month, which should give them more time to create a deeper relationship.
Rich Central (Ill.) defensive tackle Caylon May certainly looks the part, but he needs a lot of work. The previous Illini staff had offered, but the new staff wants to get a closer look at May during summer camp. May doesn't have any other power-five offers yet, but he likely will once other DL prospects come off the board.
Illinois hasn't offered Deerfield (Ill.) defensive end Joshua Maize, but he's a propsect worth watching. He reminds me a lot of former Illini commit Joshua Black, who was an under-the-radar prospect who blew up during the summer. Pass rushers are difficult to find, and sometimes you have to do a bit of projecting. Maize played linebacker last season, but he has a good frame and looks pretty good on film in pursuit. Maize mostly has MAC offers but recently received a UConn offer. He would like to make a decision this summer, but Illinois wants him to camp. Expect Maize to take them up on that offer, because Illinois is his dream school.