Defensive Ends Strength of Line

This is a first of a series of stories by Frank Frangie previewing the 2007 Illini by position. It starts with the defensive line, where Illinois has great depth at end, solid starters but needs some help at tackle, but overall a group that could help the Illini as it hopes for Big Ten resurgence.

There may be no position on the Illini roster as deep as the defensive front. The problem, however, is that there are far more ends than tackles. For that reason, the development of young tackles may have everything to do with this team's success.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: The Illini have one of the best interior linemen in the Big Ten in senior Chris Norwell, a 6-6, 300-pounder who made the transition from offensive line as a freshman and has never looked back. Some believe Norwell ultimately will be a better offensive lineman and will move there at the next level, but for now, he anchors the Illinois front. His strength is his strength, so to speak, as he is a bit tall to have great leverage inside, but succeeds with toughness, strength and athletic ability. Being a four-year starter helps as well.

After that, it gets interesting. Former walk-on David Linquist mans the other spot and is better than you think. Quick for his 285 pounds on a 6-3 frame, Linquist is around the ball, hence his high number of fumble recoveries a year ago. He is tough. And he plays a mile a minute, similar to Josh "Buckshot" Norris a year ago. The key is how many plays can Linquist play per game.

The key backup before the fall was former linebacker Sirod Williams (6-0, 280). It also is possible that some ends could move inside.

More likely, though, is that one or two of the four incoming defensive tackles will be ready. Josh Brent and DeAngelo McCray were more heavily recruited than Darryl Ballew and Steve Matas, but all will be given an equal chance. Coaches hope two of the four emerge to join Williams as those who play behind Norwell and Linquist.

DEFENSIVE END: Unlike tackle, this is one of the team's deepest positions. Senior Derek Walker (6-4, 276) is an all-star candidate and is slated to start opposite overachiever Doug Pilcher (6-5, 265), solid a year ago as a redshirt freshman. Walker is talented, fast and hungry. Pilcher lacks athleticism but has a motor that won't stop. The two look to be a pretty good pair.

But they will be pushed. The backups to start the fall will be junior Will Davis (6-3, 246), who missed most of spring but has had a phenomenal off-season training program, and sophomore Antonio James (6-5, 255), who also got a look at tackle in the spring. Both served as backups last year and got valuable playing time, both playing perhaps their best games in a narrow lost to national title runner-up Ohio State.

Still, none of those four may be the most talented end. The buzz of the spring came from redshirt freshman to be Jerry Brown (6-4, 253), whose lightning quick first step and incredible tenacity made him the hardest defensive player to block in the spring.

ZOOK'S COMMENTS: "This group will be very good. Pilcher, I don't know how he does it, but he makes plays. Derek Walker is a big-timer. And Jerry Brown…I don't want to put to much pressure on him because he's just a freshman, but …Wow… Inside, Linnie (Linquist) will hold up in there with Norwell, but we are going to need some of those young guys to be ready to play. We know that. They know that."

FRANGIE'S TAKE: I think Pilcher or Antonio James will have to move inside. Derek Walker has to stay healthy because the other guys, albeit talented, are so young. I do think Jerry Brown will be a star. Same with Will Davis and even Clay Nurse. Fast defenses are fast because their ends and linebackers can run. This will be as fast a group of ends as there is anywhere.

NEXT REPORT: LINEBACKERS

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