Illinois has most of its defenders back for another year. They did lose three talented defensive linemen, their star middle linebacker, and likely first round draft choice cornerback Vontae Davis. But there is still talent available. The problem now is looking for the quality play that will transform an inconsistent defense into a strong one.
Much of the problem last year centered around inexperienced safeties and linebackers. Opponents game-planned to exploit weaknesses. This caused the players to distrust one another and leave their own assignments unattended to compensate for problems elsewhere. A vicious cycle ensued. Of course, injuries also took their toll on overall effectiveness.
Co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory have a major rebuilding task on their hands beginning next Tuesday at the first spring practice. They must help the youngsters gain experience, help older reserves gain the confidence to take command at positions left vacant by the departed, and find the right people for each position.
Discussions of the defense must always begin with the line. New coach Keith Gilmore has a big task at hand. He has numbers, but he is replacing a coach (Tom Sims) who had the trust of his players. He must establish his own style and find a way of getting his men to buy into and trust his coaching.
He also must find quality replacements for defensive ends Derek Walker and Will Davis plus tackle Dave Lindquist. All three now seek pro careers, and they will be hard to replace.
At end, Doug Pilcher is the last remnant of the Ron Turner regime. He committed to Turner before signing with Ron Zook's first team. He is a four year performer who has gotten stronger each year. He didn't have the junior season he expected, so hopefully he is driven to go out with a bang.
Jerry Brown, Antonio James and Clay Nurse have all been career backups who knew ahead of time they would not beat out established starters. Can they rise up now that the positions are open again? Will Brown in particular find the motivation and consistency to reach his outstanding potential? Brown is the best speed rusher on the team, but he must learn to use strength and technique when speed alone is insufficient. How hungry these lettermen are will determine the quality of the end spots this year.
Freshmen Whitney Mercilus, Ugo Uzodinma and Glenn Foster are also competing for spots at end. Mercilus is a tenacious, aggressive defender with excellent skills. His problems are a lack of experience and size for the position. Uzodinma is a big, rawboned talent who needs work on technique. He has the size and explosiveness for the strongside position. Foster will also get a chance to prove himself.
Tackle is a big question mark this spring. Sirod Williams bench presses over 500 pounds and was slated to be a starter before knee surgery wiped out his senior season. He returns for his redshirt year but will be unable to participate in contact drills this spring. He is better at containing line blockers than rushing the passer.
Upcoming sophomore Corey Liuget is a potential star. At 290 pounds, Corey has the quickness and explosiveness to be an outstanding pass rusher. He is also intelligent and a hard worker. Barring injury, he should be a standout.
But right now, everything else is an uncertainty. Josh Brent is a man mountain with ability inside, but his status is uncertain at this time due to a recent DUI. If he can practice this spring, he will be a starter. At 320 pounds, Brent has the combination of size and explosiveness to be outstanding, if he can solve his problems and find consistency.
Whether Brent practices this spring or not, backups must be found. Right now, only squadmen Anterio Jackson, Darryl Ballew and Reggie Ellis are listed there. Jackson is a former linebacker who is still working on gaining the size and strength to compete in the line.
Ballew is a technician who lacks flexibility and mobility. He may help with time, but how soon is the question. Ellis arrived last year out of shape and needing to transform his body. It will be interesting to see what he can do this spring as he enrolled with glowing credentials despite short arms and a lack of height.
Linebacker is another complete unknown and may prove to be the biggest defensive problem if youngsters don't emerge quickly. Two of last year's three starters have graduated, and Martez Wilson will be tested in the middle after playing the weakside spot the past two years. If that experiment succeeds, all three linebacker spots will be new.
Martez is a superstar athlete who is not yet a superstar linebacker. He has great size and speed, but he was frequently burned last year by complex offensive alignments. And he may have played with injury at times, restricting his movement.
A middle linebacker must be the leader of the defense, receiving the signals from the sidelines and calling out formations and plays for his teammates. Can Wilson accept the increased responsibility while improving his overall game? If he can adequately replace stars J Leman and Brit Miller from the past two seasons, he would solve a major problem.
Redshirt sophomore Ian Thomas gets first crack at the strongside spot. A workout warrior who benches 525 pounds despite his 6'-1" frame, Ian is an aggressive defender who has the coverage skills of a safety. He was moved to SAM last fall after playing in the middle most of his career, and it took him awhile to gain confidence there. The Illini need him to develop.
The remaining linebacker options are all newcomers. Junior college transfer Aaron Gress was brought in to play, but it is uncertain at what position. He played the outside spots previously, but he could also move to the middle if necessary. He is an overachiever who has built himself up to 240 pounds, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he learns the system and shows what he can do.
Russell Ellington played a reserve role as a freshman. Coach Disch wants his linebackers to learn all three positions, and Russell saw time both at the MIKE and WILL spots. He has the early lead for playing time among last year's freshman class.
Justin Staples, Evan Friersen, and Nate Palmer were all redshirted last year. Staples can play anywhere and is likely to see extensive action this spring. Friersen is strong and fast but needs technique work after missing last Camp Rantoul. Palmer is also raw and may need more time.
There are two other intriguing candidates at linebacker. Dustin Jefferson has been a career reserve at Illinois, but he made some good plays when added to the kickoff unit last fall. He may be ready to provide some experienced backup.
And Nate Bussey has been moved from safety to bolster the linebackers. Nate is exceptionally fast for the position and is in exquisite shape. But it may take time for him to learn the position.
Vontae Davis has left for the pros, leaving Dere Hicks as the lone starting cornerback returning to the defense. Dere has three years experience and should be a standout this year now that he's no longer in Vontae's shadow. But just like the rest of the defense, depth must be determined this spring.
Miami Thomas is an exceptional corner, but he won't be practicing this spring after both knee and shoulder surgeries. Hopefully, he will be back to full strength this fall. Tavon Wilson received playing time late last year as a raw freshman, and he should start out at Davis' cornerback spot.
Pat Nixon is in school and could be excellent at corner if the NCAA has cleared his academics for eligibility. Pat is small but extremely quick and can stick like glue to receivers in man defense. He still has much to learn, but he will help if available.
Another possible corner is Travon Bellamy. Travon was the starting nickel back as a freshman and played corner the following fall before twin shoulder surgery required a redshirt year. He was expected to blossom last fall as a free safety, but he had problems learning the position. And he may not have been confident of his shoulders.
It remains to be seen where Bellamy will play this spring, but nickel and corner may be his best option. Senior squadman Antonio Gully is another possible corner, but he has yet to show the speed and hip flexibility to play the position at a high level.
If Bellamy moves to corner and Bussey to linebacker, the safety spots may also be confusing this spring. Illinois was burned repeatedly by the inexperience of the safeties last fall, and Bellamy and Bussey were two of those who saw time there.
Junior college transfer Donsay Hardeman won the strong safety position halfway through the season, and he is a big hitter who could be outstanding. However, neck surgery will prevent him from practicing this spring, and his football future is still in doubt due to the location of the injury.
Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards also saw time last fall, with Edwards being the nickel back the last half of the season. They are not extremely fast, but it is hoped their experience will help them know where to be and how to avoid deception.
Competing with them will be freshmen Supo Sanni and Ashante Williams. Sanni is tall and rangy, and he can cover a lot of ground. Some people are rooting for him to rise to the top this spring. Ashante will be tried there after beginning as a cornerback. He missed last fall due to an academic shortcoming but is a powerfully built youngster with quickness and athleticism. Of course, neither has the experience for the position.
There is talent on the defensive unit. But the frustrations and confusion of last fall will continue to cast a pall over the defense until it backs up its potential with quality play. Observers last year were deceived by how well the first string defense played against the second string offense. If that happens again, we will remember the second string offense is young and inexperienced and not the caliber of a first string opponent.
Defensive players have a lot to prove this spring. It is hoped a group that has more questions than answers to begin spring ball will have more answers than questions by the end of April. If not, it could be a long fall.