The temptation is to drool about what could have been. Corey Liguet and Josh Brent as two immovable tackles, Jerry Brown and Clay Nurse caving in pockets from either side. Problem is – half that defensive line didn't do its part in the classroom. Despite chance after chance from the Illinois coaches, academic staff and others, Brown and Brent are ineligible. Again. But before you fret too much, know that Illini coaches are excited about what remains.
"Sometimes you lose guys, no matter how many chances they had," Coach Ron Zook said. "But we have some linemen who are ready to play right now. Guys who made great strides for us."
First, there is Liguet, the 300-pound manchild who, in his junior year, could be one of the most physically tough players in the Big Ten. A South Florida product who committed as a 250-pound end, grew to 285 before he ever got to campus and has been over 300, Liguet has kept that athleticism that made him so special. He will man one of two true tackle spots.
The other spot likely will be a rotation between two young players with great upside. Glenn Foster enters camp as the other starter – a 6-4, 270-pounder who isn't the biggest guy you'll ever see, but may be the hungriest.
"He has the kind of motor you just don't see every day," Zook said. "Really, really plays hard. That in itself makes him hard to block."
When Foster is not in there, or when Liguet needs a blow, the third guy in the rotation, redshirt freshman Akeem Spence, may be even more talented. He is only 6-1, but weighs 305 and can move. He is built low to the ground, making him perhaps the best two-gap run-stuffer the Illini have.
"Akeem can be really good," Zook said. "He just needs to play."
With that tackle rotation in place, the one true end spot belongs to Nurse, the 6-3, 265-pound senior who recorded four sacks in one game last year. Nurse has been nicked from time to time, including surgery that kept him out of contact during the spring. But when healthy, he has shown great burst. He also has developed into a real leader, one of the reasons he, cornerback Tavon Wilson and receiver Eddie McGee represented the Illini at Big Ten Media Day.
The other end spot is now referred to as the "bandit" in new coordinator Vic Koenning's defense. It refers to a player who rushes some, drops some, stunts some, and is used all over the field. The look allows Illinois to mix fronts throughout the game. The spot, at least heading into spring, belongs to lean but nifty Michael Buchanan, who is 6-6 but needs to add weight to his 230-pound frame.
But come fall, look for incoming freshman Brandon Denmark to get a long look at the bandit spot as well.
"These guys took to Vic's defense well," Zook said. "We've got the right guys, just have to get them lined up in the right spots."