Cornerback Vontae Davis left the Illinois football program after his junior year, and he became a first round NFL draft choice. Defensive linemen Will Davis, Derek Walker and Dave Lindquist are all competing on NFL rosters for their professional futures. The same is true for star middle linebacker Brit Miller.
They will be missed. However, the cupboard is not entirely bare. Capable replacements are available for every position, but many are young and inexperienced. A big question going into fall camp is how quickly these youngsters can rise up and play at a peak level.
There are some encouraging signs. On the defensive line, Sirod Williams returns for his senior year after missing last fall due to knee surgery. He is one of the squad's strongest men, and he was penciled in as a starter prior to his injury. He should provide leadership and stability on the inside.
Williams will be joined by junior Josh Brent and sophomore Corey Liuget at the tackle spots. Brent's status is still uncertain. He is back on the team after a suspension for a DUI, but it is unknown whether he will be forced to miss any games as part of his punishment. He is a man mountain with quickness and strength, and he has experience. If he can play most or all of the season, he could become one of the Illini's best players.
Liuget may already have that distinction. The Miami product is intelligent, fast, and has a high motor. At 290 pounds, he can blow past offensive linemen. After playing extensively as a rookie, Liuget should be an anchor on the defensive line for years to come. And he is already showing leadership ability.
Junior Rahkeem Smith is undersized but made plays with quickness in the spring, while Daryle Ballew is recovered from shoulder surgery and provides depth. Redshirt freshman Ugochukwu Uzodinma is an explosive athlete who could eventually star once he learns technique and gains sufficient strength. And freshmen Akeem Spence and Lendale Buckner will get a chance at playing time early if they're ready.
There may be no speed rusher like Will Davis when healthy, and this could be the Illini's Achilles Heel. But the Illini do boast three defensive ends with extensive experience. Fifth year senior Doug Pilcher is a heady, strong player working on his fourth letter. He is relentless if not overly athletic. Senior Antonio James is versatile enough to play anywhere on the defensive line and can provide depth at tackle when not playing end. And Clay Nurse could blossom this year. He is quick and explosive.
Backing them are some untested rookies. Whitney Mercilus may be the best of the rest. He is a little undersized, but he has the tenacity for the position. Fellow redshirt freshman Glenn Foster made important improvements last spring and could challenge. It remains to be seen whether true freshmen Mike Buchanan and Tim Kynard will be ready this fall, but they have potential for the future.
The key at linebacker will be how quickly Martez Wilson adapts to the MIKE position. The Illini defense funnels ball carriers to the middle linebacker, so Wilson could lead the tackle chart. He is one of the most outstanding athletes on the team and can run a 4.5 forty yard dash at 250 pounds. If he stays in the film room and gains confidence in his knowledge of the defense, he can be a future star. But replacing Miller will be a difficult challenge.
Strongside linebacker Ian Thomas is barely over 6'-0" tall, but he challenges Sirod Williams for strongest squad member. The former boxer is now in his third year on campus and may be ready to utilize his strength and speed to good advantage. Sophomore Russell Ellington started all spring on the weakside. The former quarterback lacks experience, but he is athletic and intelligent.
Depth at linebacker is critical, and youth may be a drawback. Redshirt freshman Evan Friersen is the most natural middle linebacker of the group and could spell Wilson. Redshirt freshmen Justin Staples and Nate Palmer, junior converted safety Nathan Bussey and junior college transfer Aaron Gress are all vieing for playing time, along with true frosh Eric Watts. It is important for at least some of them to develop quickly.
The good news in the defensive backfield is the fact safety Donsay Hardeman has been cleared for full contact. Hardeman broke a bone in his neck last fall, and there were concerns his playing days might be over. The hard-hitting senior is the most athletic safety on the team and one of the most inspirational leaders. If he can learn to hit with his shoulder instead of his head, he could have an outstanding season.
He will be needed because the other safeties either fared poorly last year or have not yet played a down of college ball. Bo Flowers has the inside track at the other safety spot. The former minor league baseball player makes up with intelligence and experience what he lacks in overall quickness.
Another similar performer is Garrett Edwards. He also gained knowledge through the fire of last season's games and can use his intelligence and confidence in a constructive way. Safeties call plays for the defensive backs, and all three of these players benefitted through trial and error last fall. They can play a stabilizing role for the defense.
They are backed up by sophomore Supi Sanni and redshirt freshman Ashante Williams. Sanni is tall and rangy and covers sideline to sideline. Williams is a powerful former running back with much potential. However, they were inconsistent in their assignments in spring, and it remains to be seen how much they can contribute this fall.
Dere Hicks earned the Most Valuable Defensive Back Award last fall, and he returns at corner for his senior season. Sophomore Tavon Wilson is one of the larger cornerbacks around, and he gained significant confidence by playing as a rookie. He played opposite Hicks in the spring and could start.
A key to this fall will be how well Miami Thomas returns from knee and shoulder surgeries. Thomas is the most natural, aware corner on the team, and he was missed last fall after starring in brief action as a freshman late in the 2007 season. He still favored his knee in the spring, and it is difficult to return to 100% in one year for either of those surgeries let alone both.
If Thomas can play, he will either start at corner or be the nickel back on passing downs. If not, Travon Bellamy might be the top choice at nickel. Bellamy played well as a true freshman nickel, but he struggled last year at safety.
Part of his problem might have been concerns over two surgically repaired shoulders. Now returned to his more natural cornerback position, and with another year of recovery, Bellamy can play an important role.
Patrick Nixon-Youman became eligible last spring and showed off his quickness and aggressive hitting in spring practice. The slighly built Nixon-Youman suffered a major injury, however, and his availability for the fall is still uncertain. Hopefully, the surgery to reattach an abdominal muscle to his pelvis was a complete success, and he is back to 100% mobility and confidence.
True freshmen Joelil Thrash, Walter Aikens and Tommie Hopkins will all be tried at cornerback to start fall practice. But one or more could also play safety if needed. Thrash earned major accolades for his play in Washington, D.C. last year. Former quarterback Aikens is a tremendous three sport athlete who may surprise. And Hopkins was a speedy, hard-hitting high school linebacker who helped his East St. Louis team to a state championship.
There are definitely still uncertainties on defense, but there are a number of talented youngsters eager to prove their worth. How quickly they come around will determine the success of the Illini defensive unit.