Illini '08: Defense Could Be Real Special

Regardless of the sport, strength up the middle is crucial. Nowhere does it matter more than in football and on defense. The Rose Bowl will be the final game for a number of seniors who have helped plug the middle of a stout Illini defense. How Illinois replaces them will have a lot to do with next year's defense, as we see in the second part of our 2008 Illini preview: the defense.

Gone from the current team will be tackles Chris Norwell and backup Mike Ware, inside linebackers J. Leman and Antonio Steele and safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, both starters, plus backup safety Justin Sanders. All players who secured the middle of the field.

Thus, replacing those stalwarts will be vital to being even better on that side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- Although it will only be his fourth year at Illinois, Ron Zook already has put together perhaps the best group of defensive ends in the nation. That's right, maybe the nation's finest group.

Some combination of four stars -- Derek Walker, Will Davis, Doug Pilcher and Jerry Brown -- will start. Walker and Davis will be seniors, Pilcher a junior, Brown a sophomore. Davis (team best 9.5 sacks) and Brown (2.5 sacks) have ridiculous speed for their positions; Walker (2.5 sacks) and Pilcher (4.5 sacks) are solid as a rock. And together, they form a nasty foursome that can rush the passer, play the run and go sideline to sideline in rare drop situations.

Those four are so good that junior Antonio James and sophomore Clay Nurse will have to fight to see the field. And they will be pushed by true freshman Corey Liguet, one of the best players Illinois will sign.

"I'd put our ends against any in the nation," co-coordinator Dan Disch told me. "We have really good ends."

The story is not the same at tackle. Only one of the top three -- senior David Linquist (4.5 sacks), a former walk-on, returns. He is a tough-nosed guy whose motor never stops. He likely will share time with sophomore Josh Brent, a heralded recruit who becomes a sophomore in season two.

After that, it gets dicey. Junior Sirod Williams, a squatty, strong former linebacker, and redshirt freshmen DeAngelo McCray and Darryle Ballew provide the depth after that.

Most agree that former megarecruit McCray is the X-factor here. He is 6-4, 320 pounds, wonderfully athletic and has gotten significantly stronger since he has been at Illinois. But he is coming off a serious knee injury and the question is how ready is he to play. True freshman Reggie Ellis or could factor here.

LINEBACKER -- This much is for sure -- senior Brit Miller and sophomore Martez Wilson will start somewhere. After that, it gets interesting. In all likelihood, Wilson will play the weakside linebacker spot vacated by Antonion Steele. Miller would wind up staying in the strongside spot in which he started last year or move to middle linebacker, replacing departed Leman.

Middle linebacker probably is Miller's best position, but the Illini may not have someone else who can play strongside as well as him, but do have some candidates in the middle. So if Miller stays out, look for a good battle at middle between veteran Sam Carson, a career backup who is big and strong and tough, just not fast, and redshirt freshman Ian Thomas, clearly the sleeper in last year's recruiting class.

Carson is steady if unspectacular but has been around. Thomas is raw but has superstar ability -- like, Disch told me, "he runs real fast and hits real hard." Guy is a bit undersized, but a real specimen. I think he factors somehow.

In fact, even if Miller is moved inside, it would not surpise me if Thomas got a look at sam backer. He doesn't know the plays yet, but is skilled enough to handle it. And coaches love him.

But given all of that, I think Miller stays outside and is still backed up by Rodney Pittman. And Carson and Thomas battle it out for the Mike linebacker spot.

SECONDARY -- The riches back there, compared to what Illinois has had in the past, are almost embarrassing. Particularly if Donsay Hardeman makes grades and successfully transfers from Georgia Military. Hardeman is a 6-2, 225-pound safety who is built like a linebacker, runs like a cornerback and hits like a mack truck. This guy is special -- possibly, first round special.

Other safety candidates are interesting -- Travon Bellamy, who missed all of last year with shoulder surgery, could be moved back to safety from cornerback. Also, sophomore Brian Gamble, a wide receiver last year, could return to his natural safety spot as well. Even Nathan Bussey, a sophomore wno was a special teams player a year ago, will factor here as well. He, too, is very big and very fast. Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards could be further backups.

At cornerback, Illinois returns one of the nation's best in Vontae Davis on one side and sophomore Miami Thomas, who won a job at midseason and played relatively well. In fact, the emergence of Thomas is why Bellamy could wind up moving to safety. If Thomas is not ready to play 12 games, Bellamy will take over,

Dere Hicks, who started much of last year, and Chris Duvalt, are undersized guys who have played well when asked to.

All in all, this could be the best Illnois defense in a long, long time. Lightning fast and deep ends, same with defensive backs; and some concern at linebacker. But that is where Tez Wilson nees to play better than just another guy. He could be, and must be, a legitimate star for this defense.

FINAL OVERVIEW -- Group could be really good. Need the front seven to play well and need Bellamy to be healthy, whether he is playing corner or nickel or safety. If all this happens and there is nothing unforseen they will be a great defense. The only direction now to go is up.

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