The Illini defense has looked better this spring, and it played reasonably well in the spring game. But it is definitely still a work in progress. The defenders currently on campus have worked hard to improve their size and strength, but improved speed, athleticism and tackling ability will require an additional influx of new players this fall and in future recruiting. Progress is being made, but more is needed.
The defensive line was extremely porous last fall, and the Illini were restricted to using present players to shore up the line this spring. And two of last fall's lettermen, Xavier Fulton and Sirod Williams, sat out the entire spring session to heal injuries. There are a few encouraging signs to report, but our defensive line is not yet ready to dominate opponents.
Tackle Chris Norwell is our most established lineman, and he will be entering his third fall as a starter. Chris is said to have pro potential, but he has been inconsistent in showing it. Perhaps he needs more competition for his position. Regardless, Norwell can help the Illini a great deal when he is fighting hard every play.
In a statement that will likely concern a great many fans, the next three best defensive tackles behind Norwell right now are all walkons. Josh Norris is less than 5'-11" tall, so he has always been undervalued as a football lineman. But he is the strongest player on the squad, and he hustles every play. He can get lower than opposing offensive lineman and can use legs that squat over 700 pounds to hold his position or get penetration. He plays a position that functions much like a nose guard, and Josh can disrupt opposing offenses by keeping one or two linemen occupied, thus allowing his linebackers to make tackles.
The next two tackles through most of the spring are David Lindquist and Wheaton College transfer Mike Ware. Both are battlers who are much better prospects than one can usually expect of walkons. Of course, this does not mean they are ready for All-Big Ten status. Freshman Tremayne Walker began sharing second team reps the last week of the spring, and he has size and quickness. But he will need to get in top shape and do more playing and less talking to gain the coaches' confidence. Arthur Boyd and freshman Immanuel Chu are both in the mix, but neither is ready to get much playing time.
Illini coaches hoped to give Sirod Williams a chance to compete at defensive tackle after lettering as a raw freshman at defensive end last fall. But a stress fracture prevented the experiment. Sirod is a workout warrior who is wide and strong but not real tall, so his body may be better suited at tackle than end. If he can use his speed and assertiveness to positive effect, he might be the kind of defensive tackle the Illini need. Certainly, many hope he is.
Top defensive tackles are difficult to recruit. There are precious few great ones, and schools will go to great lengths to recruit them. Illinois didn't recruit a single defensive tackle this last winter, but one or more of their new recruits may get the chance to play there this fall. Brandon Jordan is listed as an offensive lineman, but he has the quickness and athleticism to compete on defense. And one or two of the defensive end recruits may get a chance there also.
The defensive end position might be an Illini strength this fall, although some work remains. Derek Walker is fixture at one end and is improved over his redshirt freshman year. Xavier Fulton started last year also, but he is still recovering from knee surgery and won't be ready to compete again until fall. In Fulton's absence, freshman Doug Pilcher asserted himself well and earned a spring starting position. He will likely get playing time this fall.
Perhaps the best news regarding the defensive ends is the transfer of tight end Will Davis and linebacker Remond Willis to the line. Both are extremely quick and have a strong first burst off the line despite their lack of size for the position. They may not play much when opponents are running the ball because they can't use their quickness as well when large offensive linemen are running over them. But on obvious passing downs, either Davis or Willis (or both) might just become the pass-rush demon Illinois has needed for some time.
The Illini also will have an influx of promising defensive ends to work with this fall. St. Louisan Jerry Brown and Massillon, Ohio's Antonio James both come highly rated and hungry for playing time. They and perhaps Chicago's Anterio Jackson, who may outgrow the linebacker position he played in high school, will get an opportunity to impress the coaches this fall.
Linebacker is another position that needed an upgrade from last season. Junior college transfer Antonio Steele has helped in that regard by using his excellent speed and tackling ability to shore up the weakside (Will) linebacker spot. He quickly moved ahead of letterman Anthony Thornhill this spring. J. Leman isn't the prototypical middle linebacker, but he has been moved there because he competes better there than on the outside. J's intelligence, experience and leadership have proved valuable to Illini coaches, so J has been rewarded with a starting spot to begin the summer. Letterman Sam Carson backed up Leman for the spring game.
Brit Miller earned a starting spot at middle linebacker last fall as a raw freshman. But he has the speed and intelligence to cover receivers and running backs out of the backfield, so he has been moved to the strongside (Sam) linebacker position. Brit can patrol sideline to sideline, and he and Steele provide the kind of speed needed in Coach Zook's defense. Miller is backed by good-looking freshman prospect Rodney Pittman, who is experience away from being an excellent player. Entering freshmen Rahkeem Smith, another workout warrior, and Dustin Jefferson will get a chance to impress this fall.
The defensive backfield has improved over last fall, but a shortage of depth hindered their play somewhat this spring. The safety position has become a team strength, especially if the top three players stay healthy. Junior college transfer Justin Sanders came right in and demonstrated excellent speed and overall skills. His open-field tackling makes the Illini much improved in this aspect of the game. Justin Harrison is a quality player, and he and Kevin Mitchell will join with Sanders to share the two safety spots and the nickel back position when defending pass plays. Newcomers Garrett Edwards and Travon Bellamy have glowing credentials, so they will be competing with walkon Tyler Rouse for playing time this fall.
The cornerback position lacked depth to begin the spring, and it got even thinner with the movement of Charles Bailey to wide receiver and starter Alan Ball's broken arm. Fortunately, Ball is expected back this fall at full strength, and his improved play is an asset. It appears Alan has finally figured out how to harness his athleticism at the position.
The next two cornerbacks on the spring depth chart are senior Sharriff Abdullah and midyear enrollee freshman Dere Hicks. Abdullah is too short to defend the tallest receivers, but he is quick and savvy otherwise. Hicks has much potential, but it took him awhile this spring to relax and play his game. Dere is one of the fastest players on the team, so a summer of weight training to increase strength and a set of fall practices may make him ready to get significant playing time this fall. Will Judson was moved to cornerback the last week of spring ball despite being even shorter than Abdullah. But he showed excellent closing speed, so perhaps the coaches have discovered another roll for the ultra quick Judson to play for the Illini.
The cornerback position will not be solidified until fall because some outstanding cornerback prospects are enrolling at that time. Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt, and Antonio Gully are all preparing with the idea they can get early playing time. Coaches believe these players have the skills it takes to play well as freshmen, so don't be surprised if at least one of them competes favorably with the returnees. Travon Bellamy can also play cornerback, so he might be tried there if not needed at safety.
Illinois may still have trouble preventing top teams from scoring on them, but their defense is showing signs of improvement. Yes, this means little given how poor the defense has been the last 2-3 years. But little by little more of the holes are being filled. If the top players can stay healthy, and if some of the youngsters can come through, then perhaps the offense will not need to score on every possession to compete for victories. Certainly, that is the hope.
The rookies enrolling at Illinois this fall appear, as a group, to be committed to making Illinois a winner again. Their enthusiasm, athleticism and winning attitudes will likely provide a big boost to the confidence of returning players. As Coach Zook continues to add quality players who are used to winning, then the players burdened with memories of repeated failure will become fewer and fewer. It will be this attitude change that will determine the ultimate success of the Illini on the field this fall.
As mentioned, Illini football is still a work in progress. Illini fans shouldn't get their expectations too high too soon because that guarantees occasional disappointment. But if things fall into place, the Illini have the potential to win more games this year than last. And a winning season will be likely, if not this year, then in the near future. Let's hope this is a true statement, for long-suffering Illini fans are growing increasingly impatient. And so are the players.
Winning solves many problems. One of these days, winning will become at least as contagious as losing, and Illinois will rejoin the world of outstanding football teams. How soon is still unknown, but based on recent developments it will happen eventually.
Spring Football Review: The Defense
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