Opponents preview: Illinois defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Illini

Illinois has a secondary with the potential to be one of the league's best, but its front seven is likely the conference's worst. Expect another long year defensively for the Illini.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense: 424.0 yards allowed per game (No. 97 nationally); 427.2 yards allowed per conference game (10)
Scoring defense: 29.4 points allowed per game (79); 31.0 (10)
Passing defense: 229.6 (79); 219.8 (7)
Passing efficiency: 136.0 (90); 139.3 (10)
Rushing defense: 194.4 (94); 207.5 (11)
Touchdowns allowed: 42 – 20 passing, 22 rushing; 24 – 7 passing, 17 rushing
Third-down defense: 46 percent allowed on 80 of 173; 47.3 percent allowed on 62 of 131 (10)
Turnovers gained: 13 – 10 interceptions, 3 fumbles (111); 7 – 6 interceptions, 1 fumble (11)
Net punting: 39.0 (10); 38.5 (2)
Kick coverage: 21.0 (74); 22.4 (7)<
Punt coverage: 13.5 (105)

Defensive line analysis

Three starters return but there is little to get excited about. This unit struggled immensely last season, and was a big reason why the team gave up more rushing yards per conference game than any other Big Ten team. In addition, the Illini pass rush was pitiful. The team notched just 12 sacks, and only four of those were from the line, including three from returning linemen.

Obviously there is room for improvement and the Illini have to hope that some comes with the experience gained last year.

Senior tackle Ryan Matha is entering his third year as a starter. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder had nine starts in 11 games last year, with 34 tackles, seven for loss and two quarterback hurries. He also played all 11 games in 2003, starting the last eight contests and finishing with 25 tackles and one sack. As a redshirt freshman in 2002, he played in seven games, starting one, before missing the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Sophomore Chris Norwell (6-6, 290) is another returning starter in the middle with good size. He started all 11 games last year and amassed 40 tackles, three quarterback hurries and two tackles for loss.

The x-factor for the front four and perhaps the entire defense is sophomore end Xavier Fulton (6-5, 260), who started the last three games of last season as a true freshman. Fulton had just six tackles and two quarterback hurries last year, but he is a well-touted, talented player who will be counted on to step up and shine this year.

Senior end Scott Moss (6-2, 270) started the first eight games of last season and played in all 11 games, with 28 tackles, half a sack and five hurries to his credit. He had 34 tackles and six tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2003.

Moss, however, likely will be supplanted in the starting lineup by redshirt freshman Derek Walker (6-5, 245).

There is little depth. Junior tackle John Norris (5-11, 265) played in all 11 games last year and had 15 tackles. Norris and junior tackle Adam Wilk (6-5, 275) will backup Matha and Norwell.

Linebackers analysis

Linebacker was also a sore spot last year and now the team must replace two starters.

However, sophomores Anthony Thornhill and J. Leman split up the starts at one of the outside linebacker spots last year and each will be in the starting lineup this season.

Leman (6-2, 235) will probably be the team's playmaker among the linebackers. He was sixth on the team last season with 56 tackles. He played in all 11 games and started the last five.

Thornhill started the first seven games of the year, played in all 11, and recorded 54 tackles.

The middle linebacker will be redshirt freshman Remond Willis (6-1, 220) with sophomore Brian Grzelakowski (5-11, 215) as the backup. The latter played primarily on special teams in eight games last year.

A player to watch is redshirt freshman reserve Walter Mendenhall (6-0, 210), a converted running back who was the Illini's scout offensive player of the year last season.

Redshirt freshman Sam Carson (6-1, 225) is another top reserve who is bound to see significant playing time.

Secondary analysis

On an otherwise weak defense, Illinois' secondary has the potential to be one of the best in the conference, particularly at safety. However, this unit needs to be more opportunistic. The returning defensive backs combined for just four of the team's 10 interceptions last year. In comparison, departed corner Kelvin Hayden had four himself last year.

Senior Travis Williams (6-0, 190) is capable of play free or strong safety and could start for a lot of teams throughout the conference. But with the emergence of Justin Harrison and Morris Virgil, Williams takes on a role as the top reserve at both positions.

Williams started five games at free safety as a true freshman in 2002, played in eight games, and had 38 tackles and an interception. He played both strong and free as a sophomore and started all 12 games, finishing with 91 tackles and one pick. Last year, however, he played in just five games, starting four at free safety, before a hip injury put him on the shelf. He had 27 tackles in 2004.

In Williams' absence, Harrison became a star of the defense. A true freshman in 2004, Harrison (5-11, 215) started the last seven games of the year at free safety, played in all 11, and finished second on the team with 79 tackles. He also had one interception.

After playing two seasons as a reserve running back, Virgil (5-10, 195) converted to strong safety last year and played well, starting all 11 games and finishing with 78 tackles, third-best on the team. He will slide back to free safety this year, while Harrison moves up to strong safety.

Sophomore Kevin Mitchell (6-0, 195) is next on the depth at safety and could also play strong of free. He had 16 tackles a year ago.

Redshirt freshman free safety Jody Ellis (6-0, 190) provides solid depth.

Junior cornerback Alan Ball (6-1, 175) is a respectable player who could develop into something pretty good. He has decent size and is a fast, dependable cover man, though he has yet to record an interception in 17 career games and has only five career pass breakups. Ball started all 10 games he played last season and made 37 tackles, with one pass breakup and one tackle for loss. He went 44-4-0 as a true freshman in 2003, starting five of seven games.

The answer to the following question says a lot about a defense that returns seven starters. Who, among the returning players, led the Illini in sacks? That would be reserve defensive back James Cooper. Yet another converted running back, Cooper (5-10, 195) had two sacks and 28 tackles last year, his first at the position.

Cooper will compete for a starting job as a senior this fall, but will likely backup sophomore Charles Bailey. As a true freshman last year, Bailey (6-1, 195) had 17 tackles and one interception. He played in all 11 games, with one start.

Junior cornerback Sharriff Abdullah (5-8, 170) has played in all 23 games the past two seasons. He started four contests in 2003 and finished that year with 31 tackles, but he played a bit role last year, and managed just four tackles.

Special teams notes

Few, if any, punters in the nation can match Steve Weatherford's leg strength. The senior (6-4, 205) enters this season with a career 44.0-yards per punt average, after a career best 45.4 average last year. That included a long of 76 yards. Two seasons ago he put just eight punts inside the 20, with six touchbacks. Last year that ratio improved to 23-to-9. Weatherford's leg strength is at times too good for his coverage, which allowed a dismal 13.5 yards per return last year, but the Illini were among the top in the nation in net punting.

New head coach Ron Zook was an NFL special teams coach once upon a time, so look for Weatherford and a better coverage unit to become a real weapon. Weatherford, who placed third in the heptathlon at the Big Ten indoor championships last winter, is an exceptional athlete who just might win the Ray Guy Award this year.

The Illini's kick coverage was mediocre last year, but expect Zook to take care of that.

Matching up with Wisconsin

It is tough to compete in the Big Ten when you cannot hold up in the front seven defensively. And the Illini just do not match up well at all. Wisconsin should be able to run seemingly at will and quarterback John Stocco will have all day to throw unless the Illini bring blitz after blitz after blitz. That may be the game plan, considering Illinois' secondary might be elite. But leaving the defensive backs on an island all day long is a tall task. Having running backs and tight ends who are good pass receivers, as UW does, will make it difficult for the Illini or any other team to sell out with blitzes.

Even though this game is on the road, the Badgers ought to run up 250-plus rushing yards and 30-plus points in this one.

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