The Illini defense will boast plenty of experience when it takes the field in 2003, with seven starters and many key backups returning. However, what was an average-to-mediocre unit last season lost its two best players—linebacker Jerry Schumacher and cornerback Eugene Wilson.
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 25.58 (57)
Rushing yards allowed: 190.2 (96)
Yards per carry: 4.34
Passing yards allowed: 230.3 (79)
Yards per pass: 6.84
Total defense, yards allowed: 420.5 (98)
Yards per play: 5.43
Turnovers forced: 19—11 fumbles recovered, 8 INT
Sacks: 27 for 182 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
Buoyed by an abundance of depth and experience, this unit should be the Illini's best in 2003. The top defensive ends all return—senior Derrick Strong will start at one spot while senior Mike O'Brien will start and again split time with junior Brian Schaefering. In his first year as a starter last season, Strong tallied 54 tackles, including 12 for loss, and five sacks, which tied Schumacher for the team lead. At the other end, O'Brien and Schaefering combined for 85 tackles, 17 TFL and nine sacks. The trio is a bit undersized (average weight 243) but displays good agility and provides the Illini with a solid pass rush.
Senior Jeff Ruffin (22-4-2) returns at tackle but coming out of spring drills junior Mike Maloney, who played in just seven games last season recording one tackle, is listed neck-and-neck with Ruffin for first-team duties. At the other tackle spot, senior Charles Gilstrap (6-2-0) will likely rotate with senior Aaron Hodges, who recorded three tackles last season after converting from guard.
Matt Sinclair had 56-5-1 as an outside linebacker last season. The 6-3, 230-pound junior will slide inside this season to take over for Schumacher, who earned all-conference honors last season with 122 tackles, 12 TFL and five sacks.
Spring ball did not clear up the muddle at the outside spots, where six players have a legitimate shot at starting roles. Senior Joe Bevis has started 17 games the past two seasons, but is locked in competition with sophomores Antonio Mason and Josh Tischer. Bevis had 78 tackles in 2001 and 49 last season.
At the other outside spot two experienced seniors and a redshirt freshman are battling for a starting job. Ty Myers has started 18 games and accumulated 84 tackles the last two seasons while senior Winston Taylor, a transfer from Eastern Illinois, tallied 28 tackles last season, his first with Illinois. Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Cyrus Garrett.
This unit returns its two starting safeties but must replace both starting corners. Travis Williams returns at free safety after recording 38 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups in his freshman campaign. Joining him is senior strong safety Marc Jackson, who was second on the team with 67 tackles a year ago. Jackson also could see playing time at free safety and senior converted receiver Eric McGoey is an option at strong safety. He had 25 tackles as a reserve safety and special teams player last season.
The team loses both starters from a year ago, but senior cornerback Christian Morton, who was a second-team all-conference performer in 2001, returns to a starting role this season. Morton was third in the nation in PBU two years ago with 26 (Wilson led the nation with 30). Competing at the other starting spot are redshirt freshmen Darnell Ray and Sharriff Gillon.
The Illini lost their two best defenders but have considerable talent returning. The line should be relatively stout, though the undersized ends can be taken advantage of in the running game, especially in the Big Ten season. The flip side is that Illinois should have a pretty good pass rush, though none of the returning players is a dominant force in that aspect.
The linebackers have talent, but for the Illini defense to improve on its paltry run defense last season, and average production overall, this unit must come together. The bet here is that Illinois should have solid production from its linebackers. With so many talented, experienced players battling with highly-touted newcomers for playing time, someone is likely to emerge. Still, expect a drop off at this position because the team is unlikely to fill the immense production that Schumacher provided.
The secondary could make or break the defense. The team has good experience and three reliable players at safety. If Morton returns to his 2001 form this defense will be in good shape. Illinois' Big Ten title run two years ago was buoyed by the stellar play of Morton and Wilson at the corners. With shutdown corner Wilson gone, Morton has to step up.