2012 Illinois Preview – Defense
Illinois DE Michael Buchanan
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
New defensive coordinator Tim Banks isn’t going to change things up too much from a defense that finished sixth in the nation in sacks, fourth in tackles for loss and third in pass defense. Even with the loss of Whitney Mercilus the line is going to be fantastic with Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan on the end leading the way. Jonathan Brown is an All-America caliber linebacker, but he’s hardly going to have to do everything by himself with a great group of athletes around him helped by the linebacker-safety combination position called the Star. The great secondary of last year gets three starters back but loses top corner Tavon Wilson. As long as the pass rush is working all will be fine in the defensive backfield.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Jonathan Brown
Tackles: Jonathan Brown, 108
Sacks: Michael Buchanan, 7.5
Interceptions: Terry Hawthorne, 3
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior DE Justin Staples
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Houston Bates
Best pro prospect: Brown
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Brown, 2) DT Akeem Spence, 3) DE Michael Buchanan
Strength of the defense: Pass Rush, Pass Defense
Weakness of the defense: Depth, Takeaways
The tremendous line lost the nation’s best pass rusher, Whitney Mercilus. So the Illini will start to struggle, right? Maybe not if Michael Buchanan can play as well as expected. It was supposed to be the 6-6, 240-pound senior who was going to blow up last year, and while he wasn’t Mercilus, he still had a terrific season-team All-Big Ten season finishing fifth on the team with 64 tackles with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. A superstar recruit with a great burst and the smarts to know what he’s doing, 2009’s top recruit will get more of the spotlight to himself this year.
With all the attention paid to Buchanan, 6-4, 235-pound senior Justin Staples needs to shine on the other side. A spot starter over the years, he made 26 tackles with a sack in 2010 and came up with 16 tackles and a sack last season. More of an outside linebacker and a hybrid than a true defensive end, he has pure pass rushing skills and great athleticism. Providing more bulk will be the backup, 6-3, 260-pound junior Tim Kynard, a backup who made eight tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss. In the mold of the current run of Illini hybrid pass rushers, he should shine when he gets his chance.
6-1, 305-pound junior Akeem Spence was a CFN Freshman All-American after making 45 tackles with a sack, but with star Corey Liuget gone he needed to step up his game a few notches. He did, finishing fourth on the team with 69 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Quick off the ball and bulky in the interior, he’s both a pass rusher and a run stopper as the bulk in the interior. More than ever he’ll be the anchor on the nose.
Senior Glenn Foster started most of last year in place of Spence making 32 tackles with four tackles for loss and a pick. More of a tweener than a true tackle, the 6-4, 260-pounder is active and strong for his size. The experience and ability are there to do even more with Spence taking up so much attention.
The future on the inside are with the sophomores. 6-3, 290-pound Jake Howe, an all-star in the classroom and a special teamer on the field making two tackles. Active with a great motor, he’ll try to produce in a rotation behind Spence, while the 6-2, 265-pound Austin Teitsma will add a bit more heft behind Foster. The high school star wrestler made three tackles in his limited time.
Watch Out For … Buchanan. By almost every measure he had a star season as one of the Big Ten’s best all-around ends. However, he wasn’t Mercilus. Now he should be the line’s top playmaker and should be a lock for the All-Big Ten team.
Strength: Pass rush. The new coaching staff will keep the production rolling from a line that helped the D finish fourth in the nation in tackles for loss and sixth in sacks. Losing Mercilus hurts, but the line will be more than fine.
Weakness: Good running teams. The Illini did a decent job of keeping the mobile quarterbacks in check, but the better ground games were able to produce. No one went wild, but Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin all rumbled, while Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray went off for 167 yards and two scores.
Outlook: All of the promise and potential up front came through in a huge way as the Illini line was among the most productive in college football. The pass rush will continue with pressure from all four spots, and while there isn’t a lot of size across the board, holding up against the run won’t be a problem. Don’t expect 41 sacks from the D again, but the line should help pave the way to at least 30.
Unit Rating: 8
Junior linebacker Jonathan Brown might be an All-American, but even if he goes on to become a great pro and a Hall of Fame performer he’ll still forever be known for his all-timer of a YouTube moment – look up Jonathan Brown cheap shot – when he applied a well-placed knee to Northwestern’s Patrick Ward. The unfortunate part about the move was that it overshadowed an otherwise phenomenal game and season finishing with a team-leading 108 tackles with six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, a pick and four broken up passes. At 6-1 and 235 pounds he has the build to go along with the strength, range and burst for the middle after working last year on the weakside. Steady, he’s ultra-productive on a consistent basis and should be on the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year short list.
With Brown moving to more of an inside position, 6-3, 240-pound sophomore Houston Bates will spend more time on the weakside. With his size and speed he looks right out of central casting with the ability and potential to be an all-around star playmaker have making 23 tackles with a sack in a reserve role. Not just big, he’s also fast with a pass rushing mentality to become a stat-sheet filler.
The Illini will use a sort of hybrid player in the Star position. It’ll be a fifth defensive back who’s also used a bit like a linebacker on the outside with 5-11, 205-pound senior Ashante Williams getting the first crack after making 21 stops with a broken up pass. Tremendously tough and versatile, he started out his career as a defensive back before moving to linebacker last year, but he wasn’t disruptive enough when he got his chances as a key reserve and starter late in the year in place of Trulon Henry. He’ll work in a rotation with freshman Ta’Jarvis Fuller, a 6-1, 190-pound speedster who got to school early and showed he’s ready to make an immediate impact. A tackling machine, the Parade All-American is a linebacker even though he’s built like a safety and is perfect for the position.
Backing up Bates on the weakside will be 6-4, 230-pound sophomore Henry Dickinson, an active and athletic prospect who bulked up over the last year and should be ready to handle more work after making eight tackles as a true freshman. Also in the equation will be 6-1, 230-pound sophomore Ralph Cooper, a backup who got his feet wet as a true freshman making three tackles. Smart and with pure hitting skills, he’ll be one of the team’s leading tacklers at some point before his career is up.
Watch Out For … Bates. The Louisiana native blew off LSU to come to Champaign, and after showing good upside and potential last season he appears ready to shine and become a star this year next to Brown.
Strength: Activity. The old coaching staff was great at recruiting to a type getting big, fast, athletic linebackers who can run. All teams want that, but Illinois has been great at finding the guys who are just barely flying under the four-star radar but have a ton of skill and potential. Brown and Bates should be fantastic.
Weakness: Sure-thing depth. Williams isn’t built like a linebacker and there will have to be a steady rotation at some point. There’s potential and talent waiting in the wings, but Brown and Bates are so good that there will almost certainly be a big drop off if injuries strike.
Outlook: The Illini linebackers should be a major strength. Active and strong in 2010, the corps was even more productive and disruptive last year than expected. This is a big-time linebacking corps that should be one of the team’s biggest strengths working behind a good line.
Unit Rating: 8
Only one starter is gone from a strong secondary with third-leading tackler Tavon Wilson needing to be replaced at corner. 5-11, 195-pound senior Justin Green started three times last season and has seen just enough time to be more than fine with the expanded role making 35 tackles with three broken up passes last season. He came to Illinois as a running back but moved over to the defensive side early on in his career making 55 tackles in 2010.
Senior Terry Hawthorne should be a star on the other side after making 60 tackles with a team-leading three picks and eight broken up passes. At 6-0 and 190 pounds he has good size and phenomenal speed to stay with any receiver in the Big Ten. One of the team’s fastest players, the former superstar receiver recruit found his role last year on the way to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.
6-3, 220-pound senior Supo Sanni is a very big, very solid veteran who made 49 tackles with a pick and five broken up passes at free safety. However, he was replaced late last season after not doing enough against the pass. 100% after blowing out his Achilles tendon just before the 2010 season began, now he’s going to get another shot at the starting gig as an intimidating force.
Junior Steve Hull has good 6-2, 200-pound size and excellent speed for a strong safety. With 58 tackles, a pick and two broken up passes he had a nice season at strong safety and now he could be an even bigger stat-sheet filler. The tools are all in place to be a star, but he has to stay healthy after missing a few games late in the year with a back problem and after missing a little time hurt in 2010.
6-2, 220-pound sophomore Earnest Thomas and 5-10, 180-pound senior Pat Nixon-Youman will play major roles in the safety rotation. Thomas made six tackles as he got his feet wet, but with his size he’ll see time at the Star position in the linebacking corps as well as behind Sanni at strong safety. Nixon-Youman was a superstar recruit taken away from Florida and LSU, but he hasn’t played up to the potential or hype. Even so, he has been decent making 27 tackles last year and starting the final few games at free safety.
Watch Out For … Hawthorne as a wide receiver. The new coaching staff is going to do whatever it can to get the best players into the right spots, and with his speed Hawthorne is going to see plenty of action on the offensive side to boost up a shaky receiving corps.
Strength: Production. The secondary came up with a phenomenal season finishing third in the nation in pass defense and 30th in pass efficiency D keeping Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler in check and limiting Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson to 90 yards on 10-of-13 completions. There weren’t a lot of big-time passers on the schedule, but the Illini defensive backs produced.
Weakness: Interceptions. Again, it’s not like the Illini played in the Big 12; there weren’t many high-octane air shows to deal with. However, it would’ve been nice to come up with more than ten picks as a team. The secondary only came up with six of them despite all the speed and all the help from the pass rush.
Outlook: Thanks to one college football’s best defensive lines and all the pressure applied in the backfield the secondary was fantastic. The star of the show, Tavon Wilson, is gone but there’s more than enough speed and athleticism across the board to make up for it. This won’t be the Big Ten leader in pass defense again, but it’ll be good enough and experienced enough to be one of the team’s bigger strengths. However, if injuries strike the depth is going to be a problem.
Unit Rating: 8
Kicker Derek Dimke was the lone bright spot on the special teams hitting 10-of-12 shots, and now it’ll be up to 6-0, 220-pound sophomore Nick Immekus to take over after walking on to the team a few years ago. He has 40+ yard range and he has good potential, but it’ll be asking a lot to be Dimke.
The punting game was brutal after a good 2010. However, Justin DuVernois was only a true freshman and he has the talent and potential to be far better. He only averaged 38.3 yards per kick but he put 17 inside the 20 and only came up with three touchbacks. However, he only had three kicks of more than 50 yards in his 53 attempts; he has a bigger leg than that.
The kickoff return game was the worst in America averaging just 15.71 yards per try with Troy Pollard averaging an awful 16.7 yards per attempt and A.J. Jenkins, despite his sub-4.4 wheels, averaging 21 yards per try. Darius Millines only got five attempts but he averaged 21 yards per try, while Miles Osei will get in a little work, too.
Ryan Lankford averaged just 1.7 yards per punt return. The punt return game struggled with the long return just 11 yards. Terry Hawthorne will get a chance, too.
Watch Out For … DuVernois to be better. He’s a good punter but he wasn’t able to blast away and didn’t get too much help from the coverage teams. He’s young and will need a little more time, but he’ll be a good one before his career is up.
Strength: Ummmmm … uhhhh … yeah. The punt coverage team wasn’t awful and there’s hope that Immekus can be another Dimke. But Illinois is bad at …
Weakness: Special teams. Outside of Dimke these were the worst in college football. The coverage teams were bad, the return game was worse and the punting game didn’t go anywhere.
Outlook: The special teams were always bad under Ron Zook, but the new coaching staff is making a concerted effort to change things up immediately, but it’s back to the fundamentals as things are starting from Square One.
Unit Rating: 4.5
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2012 Illinois Defense |
Illinois Depth Chart