Illini Preview: Defensive Superlatives

Illini Inquirer previews the 2016 Illinois football defense with superlatives, including defensive MVP, breakout player, X-factor, biggest position battle, biggest strength, biggest weakness and freshmen who could make an impact

After two years of getting knocked off its feet in the Big Ten, the Illinois defense finally found solid footing in 2015.

The Illini defense allowed more than 34.0 points per game in both 2013 (34.0 ppg) and 2014 (35.4 ppg), respectively,  but took a big step forward (23.2 ppg) last season. While the Illini lose seven starters from last season's crew, they return one of their deepest defensive lines in at least five seasons and added two impact grad transfers (LB Hardy Nickerson and DE Gimel President) who should help maintain point-stopping momentum.

Plus, the Illini add an impressive set of defensive coaches, spearheaded by head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, and kept defensive line coach Mike Phair, who helped the defensive line develop as disruptors in 2015. After the Illini kept it vanilla this spring during open practices, it's unclear exactly what schemes Smith will run at Illinois -- expect less quarters coverage and more press coverage -- but the potential impact a coaching staff can have on a team will be an intriguing story line throughout the season.

As for a potential defensive identity, Nickerson said this days after taking the Illini job: "An identity of a Hardy Nickerson defense is a defense that's going to be relentless -- in all aspects. It's going to be flying around. It's going to be relentless to the football, going after the football, creating plays, creating opportunities for our offense, just doing whatever we have to do to win football games defensively."

Here's a preseason look at the Illini defense.

Defensive MVP

Illinois hasn't produced a first-round NFL draft pick since unanimous First Team All-American Whitney Mercilus went 26th overall to the Houston Texans in 2012. The Illini really didn't have a prospect come close until Jihad Ward went 44th overall in last April's draft. But senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot has the best chance to end the first-round drought. Smoot returns as the Big Ten's best pass rusher following a breakout junior campaign and is projected by some to be one of the best pass rushers available in the 2017 draft. Smoot has a great combination of strength and burst and played his best last year during conference play. Offenses now will game plan for Smoot -- who had two more sacks than the rest of last year's defensive line combined -- but that attention in the form of double- and possibly triple-teams should open up more one-on-one opportunities for the rest of the Illini defensive line, including Carroll Phillips (who emerged as a plus pass rusher last season) and defensive tackle Jarrod "Chunky" Clements.

USA Today // Mike Granse

Breakout player

Count this reporter as confused as to why James Crawford didn't play more last season. He had the best combination of length, speed and athleticism in the Illini linebacker corps. But he did receive a fair share of playing time in a rotation with recently graduated senior Eric Finney and is now ready for the full workload. Crawford (36 tackles, 4.0 TFL last season) is a great fit as the play-making weakside linebacker in Lovie's defense (think Lance Briggs or Lavonte David) with his plus sideline-to-sideline speed. Crawford also has received positive reviews for his strength gains this offseason and seems primed to play a big role.

USA Today


The linebacker depth chart went from the Big Ten's worst in February to now possibly middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Cal graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson gives the Illini the experienced, productive leader they need in the middle of the defense for a year before Tre Watson or Dele' Harding take over. But the return of Julian Jones was significant as well. Jones played in just eight games as a true freshman, playing mostly special teams, before he was charged in a sexual assault case and suspended indefinitely. Jones returned to campus in the winter, and when the case stalled, AD Josh Whitman and Smith lifted his suspension. Jones gives Illinois a boost in two areas of need: athleticism and speed. He lacks experience and must fend off Watson, redshirt freshman Justice Williams and senior Mike Svetina. But the Illini are limited in the number of players who have pro talent. Jones is one of them, which is why he's worth watching as a possible breakout playmaker.

Time to step up

Senior defensive back Caleb Day came to Illinois with some hype. He is one of the fastest and most athletic players on the Illini roster. But the 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior has made little on-the-field impact in his first three seasons -- though he made some nice special teams plays last season -- and was suspended the first three games of last season due to a violation of team rules. Day has been a "breakout candidate" the past few seasons. But it's put-up-or-shut-up time for the senior. He is expected to play a big role this fall due to the Illini's lack of experience in the secondary, but how productive will he be? The talent certainly is there 

USA Today Images

Biggest position battle

Jaylen Dunlap -- another player who we thought should have had more playing time last year -- is locked in as the Illini's No. 1 cornerback. He has size, speed and physicality but lacks playing experience. The other corner spot seems up for grabs. Senior Darius Mosely will play, especially in nickel packages (along with senior Dillan Cazley) but has competition for the other perimeter corner spot, where Mosely struggled last season. Redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins and redshirt sophomore Chris James both made cases for the spot this spring. Watkins showed he didn't get a scholarship just because he was teammates with Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Watkins has track speed, long arms and laid the hammer on a few hits this spring. He's raw but talented. James struggled mightily during training camp last year and heard some earfuls from former defensive coordinator Tim Banks. But he finally looked comfortable this spring and could provide a solid, athletic option at cornerback. JUCO transfer Ahmari Hayes is long and works hard but he's thin. Trenard Davis is a good athlete but may be better suited at safety. There are a lot of options here, but who will step up to prove they can be the reliable one? 

Jeremy Werner

Biggest strength

Defensive line: Despite losing Jihad Ward, this is the best looking front four since Mercilus, Akeem SpenceGlenn Foster and Michael Buchanan helped lead the Illini to the No. 6 defensive ranking nationally in 2011. The group not only has a premier player (Smoot) in its starting group, but it has another NFL talent in DT Jarrod "Chunky" Clements; a stout, workout stud in Robert Bain; and an emerging pass rusher in Carroll Phillips, who had a strong spring off the edge. All the starters are experienced senior. The group also had depth -- for a year at least. Grad transfer Gimel President has starting experience from Auburn and provides a stout run stuffer as well as the versatility to shift inside on subpackages. Redshirt freshman DT Jamal Milan has star potential if healthy and should be a nice rotation piece. Sophomore DT Tito Odenigbo earned starter's reps this spring and should be a solid rotation piece, and sophomore DE Henry McGrew is strong against the run. This is a huge area of concern next season, but the Illini may have a top-half defensive line in 2016.

courtesy Illinois athletics

Biggest weakness

Inexperienced secondary: I wanted to go with speed but Crawford, Julian Jones, Phillips, Day and Watkins should give the Illini a bit more closing ability this season (though speed is still a huge need for the future). The secondary was one of the Illini's most overlooked strengths last season. The Illini ranked No. 9 in the country in opponent yards per pass attempt -- which was No. 5 in the conference! -- and 28th in opponent passer rating. But the Illini lose the nation's fifth-leading tackler (Clayton Fejedelem) at safety and 71 combined career starts at cornerback (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence). Taylor Barton, who earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors last season, has started 29 career games but is the only proven starter on the team. Mosely is the only other player in the secondary with starting experience (five starts) and extended playing time. There is some talent in this group and the defensive line should help, but the Illini are counting on unproven players to show some reliability.

USA Today // Mike Granse

True freshmen impact

Maryland native and former Michigan commit De'le Harding -- Scout ranks him as the No. 23 MLB in the Class of 2016 -- was the Illini's biggest addition on Signing Day. We compared his late decision to join Illinois to Vaughn's Signing Day decision in 2015. Harding gave Illinois an impact talent at a huge position of need. Luckily, Illinois added Nickerson so Harding won't be pushed into a huge role immediately. But he has the size and athleticism to make an immediate impact, likely on special teams.

The previous Illini staff may have found a sleeper in Evan Jones. It's not clear whether Jones will be a cornerback, safety or a hybrid linebacker. But the term "freak" has been used to describe Jones combination of strength, speed, athleticism and work ethic. He could find an early role on special teams.

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