Position Primer: Illini secondary

Illini Inquirer previews the Illinois secondary and answers 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

Aug. 2 - Illini linebackers

Today - Illini secondary



Year: Redshirt junior

Stats: 32 career tackles, 2 career PBUs, one blocked punt

Analysis: I've long been a fan of Jaylen Dunlap and couldn't understand why the previous Illini staff was not. The Illini lacked athleticism and length in the secondary, yet Dunlap could barely get on the field last year despite V'Angelo Bentley's lack of height, Eaton Spence's lack of athleticism and length and Darius Mosely's struggles. Graduations of Bentley and Spence plus a new set of eyes have given Dunlap new opportunity. When Lovie Smith mentions players he's excited about on his inherited roster, Dunlap -- again, he barely played last season -- almost always is mentioned. Why? “What I saw from (Dunlap) is good size for a corner," Smith said. "Over six feet. Good speed. He’s a tough guy. He’ll tackle. You see that on video and we saw that during the spring, and he’s been very coachable.” Basically, Dunlap has all the measurables and mindset that Lovie wants in a corner. Smith's prototype is Charles Tillman, and Dunlap fits that mold: long, athletic, physical and opportunistic. He's written in ink as the No. 1 corner (earning the opportunity he should've been given last season) and could be in line for a break-out season.


Year: Junior

Stats: JUCO (two seasons) -- 43 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, six PBUs, two interceptions and twoforced fumbles

Analysis: Honestly, I'm only listing Ahmari Hayes as a starter because the media guide depth chart lists him as a starter. The previous staff recruited Hayes to make an immediate impact. He's definitely long, but he's also very thin. He's a hard worker who often stayed on the field long after spring practices ended to work on his technique. He definitely is in the mix to start but obviously has not proven himself at the Big Ten level. Of course, neither have any of the other options.


Year: Redshirt senior

Stats: 56 tackles, four interceptions, 7 pass breakups last season

Analysis: The lone returning starter of the secondary, Taylor Barton brings experience, athleticism and physicality to the secondary. He played free safety last year but moves into his more natural position of strong safety this season. Barton has improved each year, as a tackler during his sophomore season and as a cover guy last season. Illinois would like the two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention safety to be a more consistent playmaker on the ball (he had three interceptions over his first two games and just one the rest of the season), but the Illini are happy to have a reliable veteran at the back end of the defense.


Year: Senior

Stats: Seven tackles, one interception and one forced fumble last season

Analysis: Unlike Barton, Caleb Day's biggest question is reliability. There are few better athletes on the team. But that hasn't translated to the football field yet. Day has good speed, range and length. But he's struggled to find a role (he's switched positions -- wide receiver, safety and cornerback -- frequently) and struggled to stay on the field. It's time for him to step up. He has the skill set Illinois wants in its safeties, but can the new staff finally get the most out of him?


Year: Senior

Stats: Career 19 tackles

Analysis: Wait, five starters? Well, Illinois designates players at nickel back, a position they play in subpackages to defend slot receivers and provide a capable tackler in the box. It's opened up a world of opportunity for undersized senior Dillan Cazley, who had played almost primarily on special teams his first three seasons. While he's listed at 5-foot-10, Cazley is probably an inch or two smaller than that. But he's a solid athlete and packs a physical punch for a man his size. Cazley earned a bunch of reps this fall and seems to have carved out a niche with the new staff.



Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: Cameron Watkins showed this spring that he didn't receive an Illinois scholarship simply because he was high school teammates with Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Watkins has track speed, long arms and laid the hammer on a few hits this spring. Like Dunlap, he seems to fit the mold of what Lovie wants in his cornerbacks. Watkins is raw but talented and put himself firmly in the mix to start opposite Dunlap.


Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: 10 games played, six tackles

Analysis: Chris James struggled mightily during training camp last year and heard some earfuls from former defensive coordinator Tim Banks. But the Texan, who played primarily on special teams last season, finally looked comfortable and confident this spring and could provide a solid, athletic option at cornerback. He has a shot at the starting job opposite Dunlap.


Year: Senior

Stats: 36 career games played, 67 career tackles, 3 career PBUs

Analysis: No cornerback on the roster has more experience than Darius Mosely. In turn, no cornerback has more film showing his flaws. Mosely had a rough season as a junior. He struggled to turn his hips and run with some Big Ten receivers and has had a few costly missed assignments as well. Banks trusted Mosely, but the new staff needs to see more to put him into a big role. He will compete with Cazley for the nickel role, a role he can succeed in, but probably will no longer be used as a boundary corner.


Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: 12 games, 1 tackle last season

Analysis: Darwyn Kelly is probably the biggest competition for Day. He earned a lot of reps this spring but has yet to perform like a starting caliber Big Ten safety. He has a solid skill set (solid athleticism and size) but hasn't stood out yet.


Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: 10 games, seven tackles last season

Analysis: Julian Hylton is a good looking athlete on the hoof but has struggled to find a permanent home at a position. He is a good special teams contributor, however, and should remain a mainstay on the kickoff and punt teams.


Year: True freshman

Analysis: The new Illini staff is happy that former assistant Al Seamonson -- an underrated recruiter on the previous staff -- may have found a keeper sleeper just before Signing Day. Multiple people around the Illini program have described Jones as a "freak" athlete. He has a great combination of strength, speed, athleticism and work ethic. He could find an early role on special teams. He's kind of positionless right now, but he could fit really well as the nickel or a hybrid linebacker/safety in subpackages.


Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: Trenard Davis arrived on campus last summer and went through workouts, but academic issues caused him to enroll at Parkland Community College in Champaign for a semester. He re-joined the team this winter and gives the Illini a versatile athlete who could play safety or cornerback. He nursed an injury for part of the spring and may be a year away from contributing.


Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: The previous staff had planned to play Patrick Nelson immediately last season, but the Chicago native suffered a torn ACL last spring. It's been a long road to recovery, and Nelson was pretty limited this spring as the Illini stay cautious with his health. Nelson fit well in the last staff's scheme as a physical, in-the-box safety. Lovie wants more athletic, long safeties who can cover a lot of ground. It will be interesting to see how Nelson fits into their plans.


Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: A late addition to the 2015 recruiting class, Sumpter is a bit small and lacks top-end speed. He has a ways to go to get in the mix as a cornerback.


Year: Freshman

Analysis: Stanley Green, one of just two in-state players to sign with Illinois in February, isn't the biggest, but he packs a punch. He's a solid athlete but needs some technique work if he's going to play cornerback. He may fit better as a safety than cornerback.


Year: Freshman

Analysis: Harvey Clayton Jr. is a free safety prospect with good range and ball-hawking skills. He must add lean strength and improve his explosion, but he is a decent fit for Lovie's scheme and could be a contributor in a few years.

Burning questions

1. Who wins the starting cornerback job opposite Jaylen Dunlap?

This may be the most open position battle heading into training camp. I could list at least four names who may have a chance to win the starting job. Lovie likes long, athletic and physical corners. Hayes and Watkins fit that mold. But Lovie isn't afraid to use smaller corners, like Nathan Vasher or Tim Jennings, if they are a more productive option, so James and Mosely -- players who have gone through multiple training camps at Illinois -- also have a chance at the starting job.

2. Will Caleb Day make his mark?

It's put-up-or-shut-up time for the former hyped recruit. Day long has had the distinction as a top athlete, a big reason the Ohio native once held a scholarship offer from Ohio State. But he hasn't yet produced much on the field -- outside of some nice special teams plays -- and he served a three-game suspension at the beginning of last season due to a violation of team rules. Outside of Barton, Day is the most experienced and most talented of the remaining safeties. So the Illini will need him to finally produce like a starting-caliber defender.  “This year, it has to be my year," Day told Illini Inquirer this spring. "It’s my last year. It’s not just my year, but Illinois’. We have some great coaches here. We just have to take advantage of that.”

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