Phillips, the defensive lineman turned linebacker turned defensive lineman, has been a force for the Illini along the defensive line in now his senior season. He's fifth on the team in tackles, but leads the team with 16 tackles for a loss and eight sacks. Both of those currently lead the Big Ten. Phillips didn't have much of an impact in his sophomore or junior seasons, but has taken a step forward this year for Lovie Smith and company. The Iowa offensive line with have to make sure Phillips isn't able to get his hands on C.J. Beathard and/or the Iowa running backs because he's proved all season he is a problem for offensive lines.
Smoot, who is projected by many to be a first round draft pick this upcoming spring, has been the focus around many teams game plans for a majority of the season. He is coming off a junior season in which he recorded 14.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. His production has slowed a bit into this season, but that is to be expected with defenses focusing more on him.
Despite all the added attention, Smoot is having his best season tackles wise. He's recorded 48 tackles to go along with 12.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks this season for Hardy Nickerson's defense. Smoot and Phillips give Illinois a solid pass rush that Iowa will no doubt be paying attention to. The Hawkeyes kept tight ends in to block last week against Michigan to give C.J. Beathard more time and we could possibly see more of that this weekend.
I discussed Lunt a bit yesterday, but will try to go a little deeper today. Lunt is Illinois' senior quarterback, who is coming off a very solid junior season. He's spent a good portion of this season banged up, which has led to poor showings from the Illinois offense. Illinois thought they may have a solid replacement in Chayce Crouch, but he hurt his shoulder soon after.
They then had to turn to Jeff George Jr and he just wasn't very effective.
Lunt gives the Illinois offense the best chance to win and he'll return for his senior day on Saturday. He doesn't turn it over much, but hasn't had the weapons he had last season. Two of his top three pass catchers from a season ago have either moved on or haven't played much this year. His top pass catcher, Geronimo Allison plays in the NFL and third on the list was Desmond Cain who has only played in three games this season.
His top target has been Malik Turner this season.
If Lunt can find someone to consistently get open for him, he can be very effective.
After Ke'Shawn Vaughn dominated the Illini backfield last season it's been Foster who has taken over primarily this season. He's carried the ball 109 times for 671 yards and 7 touchdowns. All lead the team. The junior broke out in the first game of the season against Murray State when he carried the ball four times for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Since then, he's been hit and miss. He's rushed for over 100 yards twice since then with those games coming against Rutgers and Michigan State. He's dominated the load the last couple of weeks for Illinois carrying the ball 32 times in two games. He's averaging over 6 yards per carry on the season and will likely see the bulk of the carries again this week against Iowa.
If anyone is stealing carries from him it'll be Vaughn who has just had trouble getting going after sitting out the Minnesota game with an injury. Another name to watch is Reggie Corbin who is averaging over 7 yards per carry this season.
Nickerson was a heck of a linebacker at Cal the last three seasons. He had a year of eligibility left and decided he'd come play for Illinois where his father was hired by Lovie Smith to be the new defensive coordinator. Well, Nickerson has been just as good this season as he was at Cal. He led Cal in tackles his junior season with 111 and the next closest was Kyle Kragen with 72.
Nickerson was my pick for a second team All Big Ten selection and it appears he could be headed towards that achievement. He was an honorable mention pick last year in the Pac-12.
Nickerson is just an extremely active middle linebacker and reminds me a bit of Josey Jewell. Both are just relentless in their pursuit of ball carriers. He's a tackling machine and Hawkeye fans should expect to hear his name often on Saturday.
He leads this Illinois team with 92 total tackles this season.
Yes, we're giving you a bonus one this week mainly because we don't know how much Turner will play on Saturday. He has the potential to be a big play receiver, but suffered a concussion against Minnesota, didn't play the following week, and only caught one pass last week as Wisconsin blew the Illini out.
When Turner is on his game he can be a real threat, but if lingering symptoms of that concussion pop up we likely won't see him be very active. That leaves the Illinois pass game very thin with weapons on the outside.
When you consider Iowa possesses Desmond King and standout freshman, Manny Rugamba, Illinois could have a lot of difficulty throwing the football.
Stay tuned on Turner's status throughout the week.