Defensive Line Still Has Unanswered Questions

The Fighting Illini football team lost three of its defensive line starters to graduation, and all three will be in professional camps come July. A big project for spring practice was to find adequate replacements. Some of that was accomplished, but there are still several unanswered questions.

Defensive end Will Davis was drafted in the 5th round of the NFL draft, and end Derek Walker and tackle Dave Lindquist both signed free agent contracts. Illinois needs talent and depth on the defensive line to have a successful defense, and replacing these fine performers is no easy task.

New defensive line coach Keith Gilbert did not have all his players available this spring, so any analysis of defensive line play must be considered incomplete at best. Defensive tackle Josh Brent could be a man mountain inside, but he remains suspended after a DUI, and his status for fall remains uncertain.

In addition, tackle Sirod Williams was restricted through part of spring ball as he completes recovery from knee surgery last fall. He played in the spring game, but his practice time was limited. He is probably the team's strongest player, so having him back 100% healthy will be imperative for the fall. He is especially adept at run defense and occupying blockers to free up linebackers for tackles.

Tackle Daryle Ballew sat out after winter shoulder surgery. He is a try-hard plodder who can help eventually, but he appeared to gain weight during his recovery period. He will need to strengthen his shoulder and get back in top shape to compete for playing time in Camp Rantoul.

Jerry Brown has the most potential as a defensive end, but he practiced only part of the time in spring due to academic deficiencies. He was the defensive star of the spring game, but Coach Ron Zook reminded everyone not to get too excited about Brown as he has a long way to go to be academically eligible for fall.

Illinois needs these players to be their best, especially Williams, Brent, and Brown. With them, they have enough depth and athleticism to compete through a rigorous 12 game schedule. Without them, depth will be a major concern should anyone else become injured.

Fortunately, there is still talent from which to choose. Sophomore Corey Liuget has stardom written all over him at defensive tackle. The Miami product is extremely quick and explosive for a 290 pounder, and he has made major strength gains through weight training. Offensive linemen respect and fear him.

With Sirod Williams and Brent unavailable, junior Rahkeem Smith frequently lined up alongside Liuget at tackle. The converted fullback is only 260 pounds, but he is quick and explosive for the position. Being only 6'-0" tall, he is tough for offensive linemen to grab onto and hold. It remains to be seen whether he will see significant playing time in the fall, but he made plays in every scrimmage this spring.

Depth behind Liuget and Smith this spring was questionable. Squadmen Anterio Jackson and Reggie Ellis were second teamers, but neither distinguished himself. Jackson is finally the right size for the line after being recruited as a linebacker. Ellis is in better shape than his freshman season last fall, but he has short arms and gets tied up easily by the offensive linemen.

There may be some room this fall for an entering freshman to contribute. Floridian Akeem Spence is a quick 290 pounder who, if he is in top shape, can play a role similar to Liuget.

Lendale Buckner is a massive man with broad shoulders who may eventually be capable of occupying two blockers to free up the linebackers. The main questions with him are whether he will be able to lose some baby fat and learn technique quickly enough to help this year. But he has outstanding potential down the road.

Fifth year senior Doug Pilcher will occupy the right end spot for the fourth consecutive year. He shared time with Will Davis the last two years, and he is a tough competitor who can bull rush with anyone. His experience and savvy make up for a lack of extreme athleticism.

Clay Nurse and Antonio James battled for the other end spot, and both had good moments. They are upperclassmen now, and their experience will be vital. James is highly versatile. He has been used at both end spots and also defensive tackle, so he provides quality depth. Neither Nurse nor James are as quick as Brown off the edge, but they are the best ends available.

Freshmen Whitney Mercilus and Glenn Foster have a ways to go to receive extensive playing time. Mercilus has outstanding potential. He is tenatious, smart and aggressive. But he is still undersized for the position. He continues to gain strength and weight, but whether he can break into the lineup this fall remains to be seen. Foster is up to 270 pounds, but like Mercilus needs work on technique and becoming consistent.

Entering freshmen Tim Kynard and Mike Buchanan may not be ready to help this fall. Both have athleticism, but both will require technique work to grasp the nuances of the position. Of course, they will be given every opportunity to earn playing time.

Buchanan especially is an exciting prospect for down the road because he is 6'-6" and highly mobile. But he will need to pack on some pounds to his 220 pound frame to counter the strength of 5th year offensive linemen.

If everyone is healthy, eligible and available, Illinois could field a potent defensive line. A starting group of Brown, Brent, Liuget and Pilcher could be formidable. That is, if Williams, James and Nurse don't beat them out. But right now, there are too many question marks to make any promises.

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