USA Today // Kirby Lee

Position Primer: Illini Linebackers

Illini Inquirer previews the new-look Illinois linebackers corps and breaks down the burning questions about the position group

Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of  Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.

July 27 - Illini quarterbacks

July 28 - Illini running backs

July 29 - Illini wide receivers

July 30 - Illini tight ends

July 31 - Illini offensive line

Aug. 1 - Illini defensive line

Today - Illini linebackers


Year: Graduate senior

Stats: 27 career starts at Cal, 246 career tackles (112 last season), 9.0 career TFLs

Analysis: Illini head coach didn't know when he hired Hardy Nickerson as his defensive coordinator that it was a packaged deal. Following the surprise transfer of T.J. Neal, linebacker was by far the Illini's biggest hole in 2016. Illinois had little talent and little  experience at the position. Enter Cal graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson Jr., who wanted play the last season for his father. Nickerson has experience (27 starts), leadership (team captain in 2015) and talent (Cal's leading tackler last season). Illinois went from starting Tre Watson or freshman Dele Harding at middle linebacker to starting Phil Steele's preseason choice for First Team All-Big Ten at middle linebacker. His lack of superb speed and athleticism caused Nickerson to struggle at times against pass-happy Pac-12 offenses. But Nickerson is a stout, tough tackler against run defenses -- a perfect fit for what Illinois needs against run-heavy Big Ten defenses. He knows this defense well (after all, it's his father's defense) and is the vocal leader the Illini want. Talk about the cherry on top of an already splash hire.

Year: Redshirt junior

Stats: Four starts, 36 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, 2 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 QBH last season

Analysis: 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.

Year: Sophomore

Stats: Eight games played, four tackles

Analysis: Julian 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. He 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 at linebacker, so he'll undoubtedly will take some lumps at the position in the Big Ten. Plus, he must fend off some competition behind him. 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.


Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: 21 tackles, 1.0 sack

Analysis: Tre Watson has a lot of similarities to former Illini T.J. Neal. He's an instinctive linebacker and can lay a big hit but lacks top-end speed and athleticism. Following Neal's transfer, Watson had pole position to earn the starting MIKE job. He likely would have had a similar sophomore season to Neal: a mix of pretty good and pretty bad moments. But Nickerson's arrival means Watson has more time to acclimate himself in a smaller role or a different role (he can compete with Jones on the strongside) before truly competing for the MIKE job next season. Watson is a really solid special teams performer as well.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: A frequent comparison here is that Dele' Harding is the Ke'Shawn Vaughn of the 2016 recruiting class. The Maryland native and former Michigan commit -- Scout ranks him as the No. 23 MLB in the Class of 2016 -- was a big-time Signing-Day addition who filled the Illini's biggest short-term hole. Harding has the talent to make an immediate impact. But with Nickerson's transfer, Harding won't be pushed into a huge role immediately. Harding isn't that tall, but he has Big Ten strength and athleticism. He's an instinctive, hard-hitting 'backer and likely will play MIKE but could fit well at SAM too.

Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: Justice Williams is a long, rangy, athletic linebacker who was recruited to play the former staff's hybrid linebacker/safety position (STAR). He must continue to add strength but does fit as a weakside linebacker in the new scheme if he adds a few more pounds. Since Nickerson didn't join the team until the summer and Jones missed half of the spring, Williams received a lot of reps during spring practice at both weakside and strongside linebacker. He should be a key special teams player this season before competing for a starting spot as an upperclassman.

Year: Redshirt senior

Stats: Six games, zero tackles last season; 97 career tackles

Analysis: Svetina has more experience in this group than anyone not named Nickerson. He started 16 games during his first two seasons at Illinois, though he struggled when he was forced into the role. Since then, Svetina has struggled to stay on the field, playing just six games over the last two seasons due to multiple foot injuries. Svetina lacks the speed and athleticism Lovie looks for in linebackers but he does provide some solid depth and versatility. At worst, he provides leadership in the linebacker room and a solid special teamer.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: Former Iowa State commit Jake Hansen has made a positive first impression. The Illini likely won't need the Florida native to contribute early, but he has a good makeup. He's a fundamentally sound tackler with good instincts, solid quickness and solid athleticism. He must continue to bulk up. He'll find a way to eventually contribute.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: A former high school teammate of Julian Jones, Christion Abercrombie was a pretty good late grab for the previous Illini staff. He isn't the biggest nor the fastest, but he is a good athlete who played pretty well against the pass in high school. He has the versatility to play inside or outside. The Illini can redshirt him, develop him and see where he best fits.

Year: True freshman

Analysis: Ayo Shogbonyo was a late addition and a bit of a project. Shogbonyo is a really good athlete with speed and range but is pretty thin. He'll need to gain 15-20 pounds and improve his fundamentals. With the depth in front of him, he can redshirt and develop -- likely as a weakside linebacker.

Burning questions

1. How will group be improved or worse than last season?

Mason Monheim started 47 games and ranks seventh in career tackles (392) at Illinois. T.J. Neal started 25 straight games and totaled 245 tackles in three seasons at Illinois. Yes, the Illini lost a lot of production and experience at linebacker. But don't be surprised if the Illini are improved at the defense's second level next season. Nickerson, a possible NFL Draft pick, is an improvement in the middle. At the other two spots, what the Illini lose in experience (Eric Finney started six games at STAR as a senior last season), they gain in athleticism and speed. To put  it simply, last year's group knew where to be but struggled to get there and make a play on the ball. The Illini needed more length and sideline-to-sideline speed and play-making potential. Crawford has great range and gained valuable experience last season. He seems ready for a breakout.. While he may make some mistakes, Jones has the blend of size and athleticism Lovie wants in his linebackers. The Illini defensive line should give the second level plenty of opportunity. This group looks more equipped to turn those opportunities into game-changing plays.

2. What is the future health of the position?

Bill Cubit's staff didn't land a program-changing class in 2016 and left the new staff with a few future holes, especially running back and defensive line. But the staff did a nice job of addressing some immediate needs with some quality 2016 prospects, including tight end, offensive line and linebacker. The new Illini staff is pretty pleased with some of the talent at linebacker. Jones, a sophomore, is the frontrunner for the SAM linebacker position this season. Williams, a redshirt freshman, received a lot of first-team reps this spring and seems to fit well as a WILL linebacker in the system. Watson has a great chance to start at the MIKE next season. Harding, a freshman, looks like a future starter, probably as early as next season. Hansen, a freshman, looks like a future contributor. Abercrombie and Shogbonyo both have the tools to be contributors. 2017 commit Marc Mondesir, who runs a 4.54 40-yard dash, was hand-picked by Lovie to fit his scheme. The Illini have just one scholarship left to devote to linebacker in 2017 due to their depth at the position. Illinois seemingly is getting healthy and strong at linebacker (and possibly in the secondary) in the next year or two -- just as the defensive line depth chart takes a major hit.

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