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.
This week, the focus has switched to the defense. We started with the tone-setters: the defensive line.
Today, let's focus on a position that historically has included some prolific playmakers in Lovie Smith's defense: the linebackers.
What Illini have on the roster
Entering the spring, linebacker was the scariest looking part of the Illini depth chart.
|SLB||Justice Williams, R-FR||Austin Roberts, R-SO|
|MLB||Tre Watson, R-SO||Mike Svetina, R-SR||Nathan Echard, JR|
|WLB||James Crawford, R-JR||Jimmy Marchese, R-FR|
That group has a combined four career starts (all Crawford). Watson and Williams have intriguing talent but probably aren't ready to be reliable starters. That's why the addtiions of sophomore Julian Jones (returning from suspension) and California graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson are so significant.
Nickerson adds exactly what the Illini needed at the MIKE linebacker position: strength, experience and leadership. He has 27 career starts under his belt, led Cal in tackles last season and probably is a better fit in the run-heavy Big Ten West than the pass-happy Pac-12. He is very familiar with the defense run by his father, Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, and allows the Illini a transition year before Watson or someone else takes over in the middle. Simply, the Illini picked up an All-Big Ten candidate and possible future pro off the waiver wire at their biggest position of need.
Jones adds much-needed speed, length and athleticism to the linebacker unit. He played a big role on special teams last year and was on the two-deep before his November suspension for an alleged sexual assault. That case has stalled and Lovie Smith, athletics director Josh Whitman and university lifted his suspension this spring.
Crawford is long and athletic. He probably should've played more last season, but former defensive coordinator Tim Banks played the more reliable Eric Finney. But Crawford has more playmaking skills and seems to fit well as the WILL, or weakside linebacker, in Smith's scheme, which prioritizes sideline-to-sideline speed. It's about time for Crawford to break out as a playmaker.
Watson has a lot of similarities to recent defection T.J. Neal, the Illini's best linebacker last season. But Neal struggled as a starter as a redshirt sophomore. Watson isn't the quickest but he's a solid all-around player. He has some versatility. He's repped mostly at MIKE but could slide over and compete for the starting SAM spot.
Williams mostly played SAM linebacker during the spring but the long and fast Texan physically probably projects better too the WILL position. He still is thin and likely needs to add 10-15 pounds. He should be a core special teams player this season.
The Illini add four freshmen linebackers this spring, and one potential instant impact player: Maryland native De'le Harding. The former Michigan commit was the Illini's biggest addition in the Class of 2017 and has the size and athleticism to play immediately. Scout ranks him as the No. 23 MLB in the Class of 2017.
Ayo Shogbonyo has similarities to Williams in that he's long and athletic but needs to add about 20 pounds. Christion Abercrombie comes from the same high school that produced Jones, and former Iowa State commit Jake Hansen adds even more future depth.
The depth chart looks a lot better than it did just a few months ago.
|SLB||Julian Jones, SO||Dele' Harding, FR||Austin Roberts, R-SO||Jake Hansen, FR|
|MLB||Hardy Nickerson, SR||Tre Watson, R-SO||Mike Svetina, R-SR||Christion Abercrombie, FR|
|WLB||James Crawford, R-JR||Justice Williams, R-FR||Ayo Shogbonyo, FR||Jimmy Marchese, R-FR|
What Illini want in 2017
Playmakers. The priority will be on speed and athleticism -- two traits the Illini defense has noticeably lacked the past four years -- part of the reason, along with porous defensive lines in 2013 and 2014, why the Illini have allowed a disastrous 253.3 rushing yards per Big Ten game during the last three years.
To this point, the Illini have cast a narrow net for linebackers and are prioritizing a few main targets and evaluating some others.
What are they looking for in each linebacker spot. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson broke it down this spring.
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.”
Marist linebacker Micah Awodiran is exactly the kind of playmaker Lovie Smith wants in his defense. That's why they've made him a priority. Awodiran visited Illinois on April 16 and spent a lot of time chatting with fellow in-state defender Olalere Oladipo. Landing both of them would be a huge in-state boon for Illinois. Awodiran has a lot of other interest (Mizzou offered this week), but Illinois has entrenched itself on his short list. He told IlliniInquirer.com last month that he plans a summer decision. "(Illinois) definitely have put themselves high on my list with this visit," he said. "I'll probably decide toward the end of summer. I want to have it all squared away so I can focus on going back to state with my brothers."
Florida native DeCalon Brooks is a bit undersized, but so was his father, Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks. He was one of the first recruits to get Lovie Smith's attention when he took the Illini job. Brooks has a Florida State offer. The Illini have made him a top priority at linebacker while others may rather play him at safety.
The Illini recently extended a scholarship offer to Fort Lauderdale native Diego Fagot (pronounced fa-GO), who also has offers from Syracuse, Pittsburgh and UConn. He's big, tenacious and has good closing speed. To be honest, it's a bit surprising that he doesn't have more offers.
Watching him at The Opening in Chicago, you can see why the Illini are intrigued by Hinsdale Central's Dorion Pollard. He's a fearless, intelligent football player with good sideline-to-sideline speed. He's a bit undersized but could fit nicely as a WILL linebacker in Lovie's scheme. He also likely would be a stud special teamer. So far, he has offers from Ball State, South Dakota and Wyoming.