USA Today // Mike Granse

Mid-term Grades: Grading Illini defense's 2016 season

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner hands out his grades for the Illini defense and special teams at the midway point of the 2016 season

Defensive line

This has been a boom-or-bust group. At times, Illinois looks like one of the best pass-rushing groups in the Big Ten (the Illini are ninth among 128 FBS teams in tackles for loss. But then they'll disappear for long stretches (think Purdue game and final quarters against UNC and Nebraska). The Illini rank 59th among FBS teams in sack percentage.

But the defensive line's bigger issue  against the run. While, yes, this defensive line was expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten due to their pass-rush prowess, it came into this season unproven against the run. Six games into the season, they look subpar against the run. The Illini have one of the best pass-rushing duos in the Big Ten, but their aggression off the edge has been exploited by teams. They too often run themselves out of  run plays by getting too far upfield, leaving the rest of the defense in vulnerable positions. Senior Carroll Phillips has proved himself  as a premier pass rusher (11.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks) but is inconsistent against the run, especially the zone-read option. He has made his case to be a situational pass rusher at the next level though. Senior Dawuane Smoot has played better than his stats suggest (8.0 TFLs, 1.0 sack). He's been very disruptive but those efforts need to be more consistent for this team to succeeed. Smoot will be drafted high in April, but the Illini need just a little bit more from him. Senior Gimel President (5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) has been a veery solid rotational player as well.

The interior has been disappointing. Chunky Clements (2.5 sacks) remains inconsistent, while Rob Bain (2.0 tackles for loss) has seen diminishing playing time as the season has progressed.

In the meantime, redshirt freshman Jamal Milan is establishing  himself as the most consistent and most disruptive of the defensive tackles. He's a big building block for the future. True freshman Kenyon Jackson has started two games. Though he has struggled a bit as expected, the short lineman will be a disruptor in the future.

Redshirt sophomore Tito Odenigbo and true freshman Tymir Oliver are big bodies. With the depth chart so thin at defensive end next season, they may kick out to defensive end next season, if needed. The Illini also are starting to rep former linebacker James Crawford, a good athlete, as a situational pass rusher.

Illinois needed this group to play at a B-plus level. So far, it's been...

Grade: C+

USA Today // Mike Granse


The Illini are 94th among FBS teams in opponent yards per rush (4.9) and struggles at the second level are a big reason why. The Illini linebackers have missed too many run fits and missed too many tackles this season, allowing too many big runs by their opponents.

Hardy Nickerson (58 tackles overall) came to Illinois for the once in a lifetime opportunity to play for his father, but he probably envisioned this season going better. Nickerson has been pretty good for Illinois. Though he (like most of his teammates) has made some critical mistakes that have allowed big plays, he leads the Big Ten in tackles per game (9.7). He should get the opportunity to play at the next level. But he's had to act as a coach on the field for his younger teammates, often aligning players just before the snap.

Redshirt sophomore Tre Watson has shown a nose for the ball (41 tackles) but needs to continue to work on disengaging from blocks and getting low on his tackles. He looks like a quality starter the next two years. Sophomore Julian Jones hasn't played a bunch yet because the strongside linebacker comes off the field against three receiver sets. But with physical teams that use their tight ends a lot coming up on the schedule (Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State and Wisconsin), we should get a true measure of what he can bring as a player.

Senior weakside linebacker James Crawford was expected to be a playmaker for the defense, but he's struggled as an in-the-box linebacker and is now being groomed for a situational pass rusher role. Freshmen Dele Harding and Jake Hansen have shown some promise on special teams and should make an impact in 2017 and beyond. The future looks pretty solid at this position, but growing pains have hurt the present.

Grade: C-

courtesy Illinois athletics


After losing three starters last season, this was the defense's biggest question mark, and the struggles of the front seven have further exposed the lack of talent and experience among the defensive backs. The Illini are 98th among FBS teams in opponent yards per pass attempt (8.2).

Besides junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, there has been a revolving door of starters in the secondary. Before he was injured, Caleb Day lost his job to third-stringer Julian Hylton. Hylton then lost his job to redshirt freshman Patrick Nelson. Four-year starter Taylor Barton, who has really struggled in run support, has lost his job to true freshman Stanley Green. The changes have helped the Illini in run support. Nelson looks like a future fixture as an in-the-box safety. He has 36 tackles in three starts and is tied for first in tackles per game during conference play. He must improve against the pass, but he packs a punch in a slobberknocker conference. Green doesn't look as ready to play but is a rangy player who wasn't afraid to come up in run support and try to make a play. He's taken some bad angles on some runs, but he improved from his initial drives against Purdue to the Rutgers game. These two may play a lot of football at Illinois, so the playing time could pay dividends even if they struggle now.

Dunlap has been solid. He's by far the Illini's best corner. He's physical in run support and has the length that bothers receivers. He hasn't made many big plays, but he's a solid starter. Darius Mosely struggled on the perimeter but was effective and more natural at nickelback in his big game against Rutgers. No other corner seems reliable right now. Chris James struggled in his opportunity at the nickel, and Ahmari Hayes just isn't physical enough. Rutgers picked on him when he gave huge 10- to 13-yard cushions. I'd like to see more of redshirt freshman Cameron Watkins, who is very green but has legit speed, length and physicality.

The Illini are desperately searching to add competition, speed and length to this group in the 2017 recruiting class. This season has shown why.

Grade: D

Jeremy Werner


The Illini rank 11th among 14 Big Ten teams in total defense (385.5 yards per game), 10th in scoring defense (26.2), 11th in run defense (185.2 yards per game), 10th in pass efficiency defense and seventh in sacks. The Illini also have really struggled to get off the field. Illinois ranks 122nd among 128 FBS teams in opponent third-down conversion rate (45.9). The defense also has committed too many costly penalties, including penalties helped lead to losses against Nebraska and Purdue. The Illini do have 13 takeaways this season, which ranks  second in the Big Ten, but  five of those came against Rutgers and three came against Murray State. They need more takeaways against better teams.

Given the number of NFL prospects among the group (Smoot, Phillips, Clements and Nickerson), the Illini should be better than that.

So why have they underachieved?

First of all, Illinois needs to get stronger and smarter. The linebackers and young secondary members are having some tough growing pains, but Watson, Jones, Nelson and Green have all shown some promise at times. This experience may be invaluable in 2017 and beyond. The Illini also need to recruit better athletes in the back seven. 

But we also appear to be witnessing the fallout of hiring a new staff. Even though Mike Phair ran some tastes of this defense up front last year, the Illini have completely installed the Lovie Smith defense this season. Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson even admitted that it took he and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers half a season to really adjust to Tony Dungy's defense (same principles as Lovie). There are different responsibilities in this single-gap scheme, and when one person screws up, the whole defense breaks down. There has been a breakdown of gap integrity too many times in the front seven (which has struggled to get off blocks), and the back seven has missed too many tackles.

Aggression is the identity of a Lovie Smith defense: four-man pressure by a talented defensive line, press coverage and takeaways. Despite some talent, apparently it will take time to assume that identity. 

Illinois ranks 57th in total defense, 61st in scoring defense and 28th in takeaways. The Murray State and Rutgers games have padded those stats. The Illini defense is better than the Illini offense, but it won't receive a higher mid-term grade because we're grading on a curve here. Expectations were higher for the defense, and they haven't yet lived up to their potential. Most knew the offense would struggle due to personnel shortcomings. The defense's issues -- given some high-end talent on that side -- are a bit more maddening though.

Grade: C-

Jeremy Werner

Special Teams

Let's not forget the third phase. The Illini rank 11th among 14 BIg Ten teams in kickoff returns (19.4 yards per return), 14th in punt returns (4.5 yards per return), ninth in net punting (36.0 net yards per punt), ninth in kickoff coverage and eighth in field goal accuracy (.750). Those may seem like disappointing numbers but ESPN's College Football Power Index ranks Illini special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky's group as the No. 38 unit in the FBS.

Despite his crucial miss on the potential game-winner against Purdue, sophomore Chase McLaughlin has been a pretty big positive at what was a huge question mark coming into the season. He started the season 8-for-8. He's missed three of his last four, all of which came from 40-plus yards out. If that is just a blip, McLaughlin looks like he can be a solid kicker for the next two seasons. Some early standouts on the coverage units include Harding, Hansen and Jones.

Kendrick Foster has developed into a good kick returner, who hits the hole hard and has reached the 35- to 40-yard line several times. Darius Mosely is pretty reliable. He hasn't broken off many big returns (his long is 22 yards), but he rarely ever lets the ball hit the ground, which saves many yards of field position. The Illini are looking to recruit a more explosive player to help here. Freshman Mj McGriff would've helped, but an injury knocked him out early on and he likely will redshirt.

Senior punter Ryan Frain doesn't have a huge leg but is solid for the most part (41.2 yards per punt). His backup, David Reisner, struggled with consistency when Frain missed two games due to an injury stemming from a bicycle accident. Look for Illinois to add a punter, possibly using a scholarship, in the Class of 2017 on a bigger leg. One name to watch: Nathan Snyder.

This group has done its job, for the most part. But it also hasn't made many big, game-changing plays either.

Grade: C+

Jeremy Werner

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