Football Season Preview: The Defensive Backs

Illini football fans are looking to some youngsters to help transform their team, and the defensive backfield may be the biggest recipient of help. In this article, Illinisports describes how several talented freshmen are blending with some established upperclassmen to provide a major upgrade in performance.

FOOTBALL SEASON PREVIEW
PREVIOUS STORIES
August 21: The Offensive Line
August 22: The Wide Receivers
August 23: Running Backs
August 24: Quarterbacks
August 28: Defensive Line
August 29: Linebackers

ALSO TODAY
August 30: Special Teams

The Fighting Illini defense was porous last year, and the defensive backfield often appeared incapable of stopping a quality passing attack. Interceptions were infrequent, and tacking was shoddy at times. However, Coach Zook and staff have made a concerted effort to upgrade the defensive backfield, and significant improvement is already noticeable.

The two safety positions return veterans in Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell, and they are both healthy now and improved over last year. They know the system better and have confidence. And they are hard hitters who fans have appreciated for their efforts. However, they are now in competition with each other, and one will not start. At this time, it appears Harrison has the upper hand, although the depth chart has seen frequent reversals in both the spring and fall camps. Both will see plenty of action, including with the special teams.

Neither the 215 pound Harrison nor the 200 pound Mitchell are speed merchants, so they are now playing the strong safety position where their size and strength can help against running attacks. Playing first team free safety is junior college transfer Justin Sanders, a Mississippian. Justin has both speed and tackling ability at 6'-1", 205 pounds, and he has been a fixture at the position since shortly after his arrival for the spring semester. Walkon junior Tyler Rouse plays both safety positions and will see time on special teams.

At cornerback, Alan Ball is back for his senior year, and it appears the light has finally come on for him. Always possessing good height and excellent speed for the position, Alan is now showing the dominance that comes with experience, maturity and confidence. He is a definite starter at one corner.

Sharriff Abdullah is a fellow senior who also has significant previous experience for the position, and he has the quickness and savvy needed there. Unfortunately, his short stature (listed height is 5'-8") makes him a liability against tall opponents. Sharriff started the fall as a first stringer, but he is now likely to see a backup role behind a freshmen. He is also running second team at the important nickel back position. Sharriff is a fine player who will see the field on special teams as well. Junior Drew McMahon is the only other experienced upperclassman cornerback on the roster, and he is a special teams crusader.

One might conclude on first glance the defensive backfield lacks depth, but that is certainly not the case thanks to some outstanding freshmen. Safeties Travon Bellamy and Garrett Edwards and cornerbacks Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt, Dere Hicks and Antonio Gully are living up to their press clippings and have made the position one of strength rather than weakness.

Travon Bellamy will play a great deal this fall barring injury. The 6'-0", 190 pounder out of Greenbelt, Maryland, is fast, strong, aggressive and a good tackler. Not only is Bellamy competing at the safety positions, but he also looks right now to be the top nickel back, replacing the strongside linebacker on passing downs. Travon closes fast on receivers and has a nose for the ball. He appears destined to create numerous interceptions over his career.

Garrett Edwards played several positions in high school, but he was primarily a quarterback. It will take him some time to gain confidence as he learns the free safety position, but he is starting to show his athleticism and intelligence at 6'-2", 205 pounds. It remains to be seen whether he will play this year, but Garrett has the ability to grow into an excellent safety over time.

Vontae Davis is now sharing first string at one cornerback and looks like a future star. The brother of top NFL draft pick tight end Vernon Davis, Vontae combines good size (6'-0", 185) with outstanding speed, aggressiveness, flexibility and tackling ability. Cornerbacks must have excellent hip flexibility to change directions quickly as receivers move to get open, and they must have great closing speed to get to the receiver by the time the ball does. Davis is already quite proficient at this and seems to be averaging at least one interception each practice.

Freshman Chris Duvalt is also challenging for playing time and will get plenty. He is slender at 5'-11" and 170 pounds, but he is not weak. He is a hitter, and he has great closing speed. One of the team's fastest members, Chris ran down the speedy Rashard Mendenhall from behind in the first Rantoul scrimmage. That is the first time in recent memory where an Illini defensive back showed that much acceleration under duress. Duvalt is also an exciting kick returner who may get some carries there as the season progresses.

Dere Hicks enrolled for second semester last year after one prep school season, so he has the benefit of extra experience. A former option quarterback, the 5'-10", 175 pounder also has excellent speed and is competing for a second team spot. It has taken him some time to learn his position and gain confidence, but he continues to look better and better with each practice. He provides excellent competition and will likely see significant playing time.

Antonio Gully is another good looking freshman at 6'-1" and 180 pounds. The graduate of St. Louis Cardinal Ritter high school has not yet put pressure on his peers for playing time, but few freshman are as good as Davis, Duvalt and Hicks. With time, Antonio will likely be a contributor.

The Illini defensive backfield has some experienced talent and some excellent freshmen. It is rare when freshmen can be counted on to play at a top level, but there are high hopes for Bellamy, Davis, Duvalt and Hicks in particular. It seems the entire defense plays better knowing these freshmen plus upperclassmen Ball, Harrison and Mitchell back them up.

If the freshmen continue to perform like they have in practice and improve as they practice each day, they can make the Illini defense much more formidable. Interceptions and sure tackling will be the norm again. And victories may not be far behind. Won't that be a nice change?

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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