Illini Football Spring Scout: Defensive backs

Illini must replace three starters in the secondary in 2016. There are a lot of names on the depth chart but any that inspire confidence? What's the future outlook at the position and who are their main recruiting targets at the position?

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.

We've wrapped up the offense. Read our breakdowns of the quarterbacks, the running backs, the receivers, the tight ends/superbacks, and the offensive line.

This week, the focus has switched to the defense. We started with the tone-setters, the defensive line, and followed with a position that historically has included some prolific playmakers in Lovie Smith's defense: the linebackers.

Today, let's focus on the defensive backs.

What Illini have on the roster

The Illini have a bunch of defensive backs on the roster. We're just not really sure how many good ones they have. Here's a quick look at the depth chart.

CB Jaylen Dunlap, JR

Chris James, JR

Ahmari Hayes, JR

Frank Sumpter, R-FR

Evan Jones, FR
CB Darius Mosely, SR Cameron Watkins, R-FR   Trenard Davis, FR Stanley Green, FR
FS Caleb Day, SR Julian Hylton, SO Trenard Davis, FR Harvey Clayton Jr., FR
SS Taylor Barton, SR  

Darwyn Kelly, JR

Dillan Cazley, SR

Patrick Nelson, R-FR

Taylor Barton, who earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors last season and has started 29 career games, is the only proven starter on the team. He had four interceptions last season, the most for an Illini since 2007, but three of those came in the first two games. He'll likely move to more of a strong safety role this season, which fits him given his size and physicality.

The next most entrenched defensive back is junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, who repped exclusively with the first string this spring after the graduations of V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence. After missing his second season with an injury, Dunlap struggled to pass up Darius Mosely in the previous staff's rotation last season despite Mosely's struggles. But Dunlap has an intriguing mix of length, physicality and athleticism that the Illini have lacked at the position and he seems poised for a breakout.

Entering his senior season, Mosely is trying to hold off a couple first-year contributors. He's technically sound and pretty physical but he's struggled in the past to flip his hips and run with Big Ten receivers. Mosely is experienced and will play in nickel and dime situations, but can he shut down boundary receivers?

Redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins is a great athlete with length and straight-line speed. He also flashed a physicality this spring that opened some eyes. He's squarely in the mix. JUCO transfer Ahmari Hayes is really thin but is long and a hard worker. He'll at least provide some length and depth but he may need some time to catch up. It's a big summer for him. Chris James had a really bad fall camp last year but looked improved and comfortable this spring. He's one to watch.

At the open safety spot, it's put-up-or-shut-up time for senior Caleb Day. He's one of the team's better athletes and has solid size, strength and range. But he's struggled with reliability and consistency. It's time for him to put it all together because time is running out.

Behind him there are a few veterans. Dillan Cazley received a lot of reps this spring, but he's about 5-foot-8 and limited. He and rangy athlete Julian Hylton likely are better fits as special teams players and backups. Darwyn Kelly has a chance if Day slips, but he's struggled to make an impact so far.

Redshirt freshman Patrick Nelson was pretty limited during the spring as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. The hard-hitting safety was a great fit in the previous staff's scheme in the Clayton Fejedelem role. It'll be interesting to see how he fits with this staff. Freshman Trenard Davis is a good athlete and provides versatility (he can play cornerback or safety) but he probably needs some time to add strength and gain comfort at the college level.

Three freshmen arrive this summer to add more depth. Evan Jones is a strong, hard-hitting DB with the potential to play cornerback or safety. He should contribute on special teams during his career. Stanley Green is a good athlete with length and physicality. He probably has the highest ceiling of the incoming defensive backs and could play cornerback or safety. Harvey Clayton Jr. adds more length and range to the back end.

There's a lot of names here. But not a lot of names that inspire confidence, at least not yet.

What Illini want in 2017

I wrote the same thing for linebackers. The Illini simply need playmakers.

The Illini will have about four scholarships to spend on defensive backs in the Class of 2017 and the number one priority is to add length, speed, athleticism and physicality.

Lovie Smith's defenses tend to play press coverage with the cornerbacks, putting an emphasis on length and physicality to win hand battles with receivers off the line of scrimmage. Smith also puts a huge emphasis on takeaways so the Illini want players with great ball skills.

Safety might be an even more important position in his defenses. Bears fans know how many draft picks the franchise spent on safeties trying to find the perfect fit. Smith demands a lot out of his safeties. He wants them to be able to cover a ton of ground, provide a physical presence and be the quarterback of the defense.

Possible targets

Crete-Monee defensive back Juawan Treadwell visited on the same day Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith committed to Illinois. Smith spent several minutes one-on-one with Treadwell while the Illini defensive backs were going through drills. Former Crete-Monee player and current Illini defensive back Jaylen Dunlap is recruiting him hard. The Illini, the only power five conference team to offer so far, are prioritizing the athletic Treadwell. Last month, Juawan attended the NFL Draft with his older brother, LaQuon, who was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings. Lovie helped develop a few good defensive backs during his NFL days. They have a good sell.

Florida safety Lyn Strange originally received an offer from Bill Cubit's staff and Lovie Smith's staff has maintained a relationship with the long athlete. Illinois, Memphis and Iowa State got in early but Syracuse, Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina and Miami also have offered.

Illinois just offered Michigan defensive back Jaylen Kelly-Powell. Illinois is a longshot given his offers from Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Oklahoma, Stanford, UCLA and about a dozen others. But I just wanted to make you aware of this future NFL player. He was an absolute stud at The Opening in Chicago. His blend of speed, athleticism and especially his physicality makes him a potential stud at corner or safety.

Illini assistant Thad Ward has made 6-foot-2 cornerback Antwan Collier one of his priorities. The competition is stiff though with Collier holding offers from Cal, Iowa State, Louisville, Maryland, NC State and Nebraska, among others. Florida is lingering though and likely would land Collier with an offer.

Alabama cornerback Zyon Gilbert visited the Illinois campus this spring with big-time teammate DE Alec Jackson. Illinois is the only power-five program to offer so far.

The Illini recently offered JUCO cornerback Keisean Nixon, but he also has offers from BYU, Cal, Iowa State, Kansas State and Oregon State.

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