2011 Illinois Preview – Defense
Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne
Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne
Posted Jun 1, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: The D that finished 38th in the nation in yards allowed isn't going to be quite as good, but it'll be among the fastest and most athletic in the Big Ten. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning inherited a veteran group, and while he had several good players to work with, he also got a huge surprise with the emergence of DT Corey Liuget, who bailed early for the NFL along with star LB Martez Wilson. The front seven will be extremely athletic and very active, but it's missing its two key stars and lacks leadership in the linebacking corps. The secondary will be a strength with some of the players who moved over from the offensive side last year experienced enough to know what they're doing, and with a few all-stars in CB Tavon Wilson and FS Trulon Henry to work around. A regular pass rusher has to emerge and the top three tacklers are gone, the defense will be disruptive.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ian Tomas, 67
Sacks: Michael Buchanan, 2
Interceptions: Trulon Henry, 3

Star of the defense: Senior LB Ian Thomas
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior DT Craig Wilson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Steve Hull
Best pro prospect: Sophomore DT Akeem Spence
Top three all-star candidates: 1) CB Tavon Wilson, 2) Thomas, 3) Spence
Strength of the defense: Secondary, Athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rusher, Tackle

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The defensive line wasn't great at getting into the backfield, but it turned out to be solid against the run thanks to the excellent athleticism up front. While there are good options to work around, the front four will be without Corey Liuget, who went from being a nice player to a superstar draft prospect making a team-leading 4.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. There's work to be done, but the line has a nice mix of size and athleticism.

Will junior Michael Buchanan ready to finally blow up? The starter at the hybrid Bandit position was supposed to be a killer, but even with 6-6, 240-pound size, a great burst, and the smarts to know what he's doing, he didn't do quite enough making 40 tackles with two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. A top recruit in 2009, he has all the skills to be a killer of a pass rusher, and he'll get his chances. 6-4, 235-pound junior Justin Staples got three starts in place of Buchanan at the Bandit and finished with 26 tackles with a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. More of an outside linebacker than a true defensive end, he'll be a pass rusher when he gets his chances.

Working on the other side as a true defensive end is junior Whitney Mercilus after spending last year as a spot starter and finishing with 16 tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss. At 6-4 and 265 pounds he has excellent size and a good first step as a pass rusher. A great recruit a few years ago, he has seen enough time to know what he's doing. He'll get the chance to be the top end the line works around, while 6-4, 260-pound junior Glenn Foster is a good tweener who'll find time somewhere up front. A good backup, he saw time at tackle but is more of an end with his size. He made ten tackles with a sack, but he's overdue to blossom into more.

How will the line possibly overcome the loss of Liuget? 6-1, 305-pound sophomore Akeem Spence was a CFN Freshman All-American after making 45 tackles with a sack and four tackles for loss working next to Liuget, and now he'll be the star in the interior. Not the pass rusher that Liuget is, Spence is more of an anchor with tremendous strength and just enough quickness to get by. He's the bulk and the rock, while 6-2, 265-pound redshirt freshman Austin Teitsma is the quick interior pass rusher. A star high school wrestler, he's a mauler.

6-5, 320-pound senior Craig Wilson is a former offensive tackle who moved over to the defensive side this year. Mostly a special teamer so far, he hasn't played up to his potential after coming to Illinois as a key recruit, and now he gets one final shot to turn around his career. He has the size and he has the tools, but he has to be a rock on the interior. 6-3, 290-pound Jake Howe is a quicker option with terrific strength. Wisconsin wanted him, but Illinois got him last year. Now he'll get every chance to win the starting job this summer.

Watch Out For … Spence. He might not be Liuget, but Liuget wasn't expected to be Liuget. Spence might not be flashy, but he has all-star potential as a run stopper.
Strength: Quickness. By design, the Illinois line is extremely quick and athletic. There's size and some decent strength, but the goal is to get everyone moving around to swarm around the ball. This group will do that.
Weakness: Tackle depth. There's a chance that Wilson could be in the right spot and could stand out as a senior, but he's an untested big bodied former offensive lineman asked to possibly start at tackle. Spence needs help.
Outlook: There's lots of promise and potential up front, but the sure-things are missing. The Illini must get Mercilus and Buchanan going in the backfield and Spence has to rock in the middle. The tackle depth is lacking, but the size is there and the quickness is excellent, but it's going to take something special for the front four to be a major strength.
Unit Rating: 6.5


State of the Unit: The linebacking corps came through with an excellent year as Martez Wilson finally lived up to his immense promise with a team-leading 112 tackles, and running mate Nate Bussey was second on the team with 83 stops. Both of them are gone leaving major holes in the middle and on the outside. As always, though, the Illini has athleticism to burn; they just don't have a Wilson.

Taking over as he star of the linebacking corps will be Ian Thomas, a 6-1, 235-pound senior who stepped up and became a major factor two years ago with a team-leading 95 stops. He played more of a complementary role last year making 67 stops with a sack, a pick, and 6.5 tackles for loss. While he doesn't have anywhere near the same athletic skills and moves of Wilson, he's quick, gets to the ball in a hurry, and doesn't miss any stops. He has the speed and quickness of a safety, and he'll show it off with sideline to sideline range. He'll be backed up by sophomore Brandon Denmark, a rangy 6-4, 225-pound pass rusher from Tallahassee who'll play a much bigger role. He saw time as a true freshman making five tackles with two tackles for loss, and this year he'll be turned loose.

Stepping in as the starter on the weakside is sophomore Jonathan Brown, who saw time in almost every game as a true freshman and made 31 tackles with a pick. At 6-1 and 235 pounds he has nice size for the position with phenomenal strength, but he has to show he can make big things happen with room to move. He's expected to be good against the pass, but he needs to be great at getting into the backfield on a regular basis, too. Helping at the position is 6-3, 240-pound redshirt freshman Houston Bates, a great-sized option who looks right out of central casting. Big, strong, and very, very fast, the sky's the limit for the Louisiana native who blew off LSU to come to Champaign.

Junior Ashante Williams is built like a safety at just 5-11 and 205 pounds, and moves like one. Tremendously tough and versatile, he's moving to linebacker after spending last season as a defensive back making 19 tackles. He'll get the call on the strongside, even though he's better suited for the weakside, while 6-2, 220-pound redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas is a bigger option but moves just as well. Originally a safety prospect, he's smart, athletic, and should be a factor as the season goes on.

Watch Out For … Thomas to lead the team in tackles. He did it two years ago and he should be the main man again now that he's the lone returning starter. A tough, athletic veteran, he's built for the middle and he should over around the 100-tackle mark.
Strength: Athleticism and size. Martez Wilson was the dream-looking linebacker, and the current corps isn't far behind with size, quickness, and the athletic build needed for the positions. Like everywhere else on the Illini, this unit moves extremely well.
Weakness: Experience. Losing two stars like Wilson and Bussey will sting. Williams is a good-looking option and Brown has good bulk and speed, but there's a drop-off from last year. Overall, it's a young corps with Thomas the only senior on the projected two-deep.
Outlook: The 2010 linebacking corps was exceptionally active and strong enough against the run to get by. This year's group will get all over the field and won't have any problems getting around the ball, but can it hold up against the power running teams? If Thomas grows into an all-star and if Brown and Williams play up to their potential, the stats will be there.
Unit Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: After years of disappointment the secondary surprised and came up with a decent year. Third-leading tackler Travon Bellamy is gone after starring at safety, but most of the rest of the key parts are back from a pass defense that gave up 221 yards per game and was generally effective. The secondary was building for this year, and now it could be the strength of the defense.

Senior Tavon Wilson was a Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performer after coming up with 48 tackles with a pick and nine broken up passes, but his worth was as a lockdown defender making things happen that didn't show up on the stat sheet. At 6-0 and 205 pounds he's a big, tough cornerback who hits like a safety and has a good nose for the ball. While his dream position is as a nickel back, he'll be the team's No. 1 corner. 5-11, 200-pound junior Jack Ramsey spent his career at receiver before moving over to the defensive side, and now he'll work behind Wilson as a key backup corner. He's fast and athletic, but he's still raw as a corner after making just four tackles.

The combination of juniors Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green will work at the corner spot on the other side of Wilson. The 6-0, 190-pound Hawthorne was banged up last year and only played in eight games, but he made 28 tackles with a pick and three broken up passes. One of the team's fastest players, the former superstar receiver recruit is still trying to find his niche as a big-time lockdown defender. The 5-11, 195-pound Green came to Illinois as a running back but moved over to the defensive side just before last season began. Shockingly, he more than looked the part making 55 tackles with four broken up passes. While he's still learning how to be a playmaker when the ball is in the air, and he didn't come up with any interceptions, he was fine as the 13-game starter.

6-1, 215-pound senior Trulon Henry came in from the JUCO ranks and was ready to roll out of the box, earning Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors finishing fifth on the team with 64 tackles and a team-leading three picks. Big, fast, and active, the starting free safety should be the leader of a good veteran secondary. Junior Pat Nixon-Youman made 15 tackles with two picks as a key backup. A superstar recruit who got away from Florida and LSU, he has yet to be the star he was expected to dominate right away. At 5-10 and 180 pounds he's not big, but he's a good hitter and will be great in nickel and dime packages.

Sophomore Steve Hull was supposed to be a big, fast, 6-2, 200-pound receiver, but he moved over to safety just before last season began and he wasn't bad. Now the starting strong safety after making 19 tackles with a sack in just eight games, the potential is there to be one of the team's and the league's breakout stars once he gets a little more time to figure out what he's doing. 6-3, 220-pound junior Supu Sanni is a very big, very good-hitting option who's like a linebacker at strong safety. Poised and ready to make a big impact last year, he blew out his Achilles tendon just before the season began and missed the entire year. He's back, and while he still might need a little more time to be back to normal, he'll be a part of the rotation.

Watch Out For … Hull. While he wasn't an elite recruit, he was considered a good, tough receiver who could've been a productive complementary target. Instead, he has the potential to be a whale of a big-hitting safety. He showed promise before getting knocked out with an ankle injury, and now he should be one of the team's top five tacklers.
Strength: Experience. Bellamy is gone, but the rest of the Illini defensive backfield is loaded with veterans. With the combination of Hawthorne and Green at one corner spot, and with Henry and Wilson in place, this group will know what it's doing.
Weakness: Interceptions. Things were better last year after intercepting just ten passes in the previous two seasons, but the secondary only game up with nine of the team's mere 11 picks.
Outlook: Losing Bellamy isn't a plus, but the secondary is loaded with veterans and talent with sure-thing all-stars Wilson and Henry leading the way. If the growing prospects like Hill and Green can shine, and if Hawthorne is back to form, this has the potential to be one of the Big Ten's better secondaries.
Unit Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Senior PK Derek Dimke stepped in late in his sophomore year and was perfect, and he came up with a Second Team All-Big Ten junior year hitting 24-of-29 field goals including 2-of-3 from beyond the 50. There were a few cheap misses, like a 28-yarder against Northwestern, but he has the range, the accuracy, and the consistency to be a weapon once again.

The punting game was terrific averaging 37.81 yards per kick, 32nd best in the nation, and now Anthony Santella and his 44.8-yard average are gone. He put too many kicks, ten, into the end zone, but he also put 19 inside the 20. In comes true freshman Justin DuVernois, who won't hit campus until late summer but has been all but handed the starting job. With a great leg and terrific accuracy, it's on him to produce from Day One.

Corner Jack Ramsey was the main punt returner last year, and he struggled averaging just 2.9 yards per try. Overall, the Illini punt return game was among the worst in the nation, finishing 117 with a 3.16-yard average, and the kickoff return game wasn't much better as WR Darius Millines averaged just 19.5 yards per try and the team averaged just 19.8 yards per attempt.

Watch Out For … DuVernois. Santella had his issues, but he was a blaster who got the team out of a lot of jams. Senior Matt Eller was the main man this spring, but he didn't do enough to grab the job by the horns and it'll likely be DuVernois or bust.
Strength: Dimke. There were a few key misses, but the senior is a legitimate Lou Groza candidate and should come up with several big kicks for an Illini attack that'll bog down a bit too much.
Weakness: Returns. The coverage teams are a disaster and the punting game is up in the air, but the appalling return game has been among the worst in college football over the last few years.
Outlook: The special teams have been stunningly bad since Ron Zook took over. There's too much speed and athleticism across the board to not be better in all areas. Dimke is one of the few bright spots and sure-things, but there's a lot of work to be done.
Unit Rating: 4.5

- 2011 Illinois Preview | 2011 Illinois Offense
- 2011 Illinois Defense | 2011 Illinois Depth Chart
- Illinois Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006