2013 Illinois Preview – Defense
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown
Posted May 1, 2013

CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2013 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Can defensive coordinator Tim Banks get more with less talent? He got ten-cent production out of million-dollar prospects last season, and despite giving up a not-that-bad 388 yards per game, there weren't enough key stops against any offense that tried hard. The strength will be a linebacking corps that welcomes back a healthy Jonathan Brown and an improving Mason Monheim, but they'll have to do even more with a questionable line that loses Michael Buchanan, Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence. The secondary will be fantastic – in 2014. It's a young but talented group full of underclassmen with a world of upside, but it'll be a rough season as everyone tries to figure out their roles.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mason Monheim, 86
Sacks: Darius Caldwell, 2.5
Interceptions: Steve Hull (WR), 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Jonathan Brown
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior NT Jake Howe
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Mason Monheim
Best pro prospect: Brown
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Brown, 2) Monheim, 3) SS Earnest Thomas
Strength of the defense: Quickness, Linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Proven Pass Rush, Takeaways

Defensive Line

While losing so much talent would normally be a problem, it's not like the line didn't do anything with Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence up front instead of in the NFL. The only returning starter is 6-3, 260-pound senior Tim Kynard, who worked in a rotation at one end making 18 tackles with a sack and eight tackles for loss. A hybrid pass rusher, he didn't get into the backfield nearly enough, but he has the skills to be the team's biggest statistical star if he can get a better burst off the ball. Stepping in on the other side will be 6-3, 240-pound junior Houston Bates, a linebacker who came up with a disappointing year making 18 tackles, but now he'll be more of a pass rusher using his speed and quickness at the Leo position.

Trying to lock down the interior is 6-3, 295-pound junior Jake Howe on the nose after seeing time in just five games and not doing anything. An all-star in the classroom and a key special teamer a few years ago, he needs to bring his great motor to produce in the middle. However, 6-4, 300-pound redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams is the far more talented option with great interior pass rushing upside and enough size to hold down the interior.

6-2, 280-pound junior Austin Teitsma got bigger adding 25 pounds and now should be ready to do more at tackle after making 15 stops with half a sack and two tackles for loss. He's quick off the ball and a try-hard type who'll do what's needed to make a play, but while he's a mauler, he's going to struggle against the stronger running teams. He'll be backed up by 6-3, 295-pound sophomore Teko Powell, who made four tackles in his limited time, but provides nice bulk and the potential to do more against the run.

Watch Out For … Abens Cajuste, a 6-3, 290-pound JUCO transfer who'll be tried out on the end early on, but is a far better fit at tackle. The Miami native was a great get for the program after starting out his career at Central Connecticut State and Victor Valley College in California. He can be used just about anywhere up front.
Strength: Quickness. By design, the Illini brought in a slew of quick athletes designed to get into the backfield on a regular basis. It doesn't always happen, but at least there are decent options to swarm around the ball and move around spots as needed.
Weakness: The loss of some great players. It's not like they produced, but it's still a problem to lose pro players like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster. As bad as the line might have been, those three were the best parts of the struggling defensive front.
Outlook: Yuck. There was absolutely no excuse for this group to have been so bad so often considering all the talent. On the plus side, there shouldn't be much of a problem filling in the gaps after struggling so much against the run. The pressure into the backfield wasn't miserable, but it wasn't enough to make up for several other problems. Now it's rebuilding time without as much raw talent.
Unit Rating: 6.5


Can Jonathan Brown get back to form? The 6-1, 235-pound weakside defender was a terror in 2011 making 108 tackles, six sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss as a do-it-all playmaker for the defense. Even more impressive was how he came up with the production despite being suspended for a game following his cheap-shot, well-placed knee to Northwestern's Patrick Ward. Banged up last season, he had a leg problem finishing with just 59 tackles, but he still got into the backfield with 2.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. With his burst, athleticism and nose for the ball, if he's 100% healthy, he has All-America capabilities.

Sophomore Mason Monheim didn't take over the starting role in the middle until the third game of the season, but he still led the team with 86 tackles with 1.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. A good recruit, he was thrown into the mix as a true freshman and made a huge impact coming up with 15 tackles against Minnesota, 11 against Penn State and ten against Indiana. The 6-1, 230-pounder might not have the best range, but he's always around the ball and he doesn't miss a play when it's funneled his way. He'll work in the rotation with sophomore Mike Svetina, a versatile defender who stepped in on the weakside when Brown was banged up finishing with 40 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss including 12 in the finale against Northwestern. He'll be the fourth man in able to play everywhere in the corps.

Working as a combination of safety and outside linebacker at the Star position is sophomore Eric Finney, a 6-1, 205-pound speedster who'll take over for second-leading tackler Ashante Williams. Finney wasn't ready to go last year trying to get healthy after coming in from College of the Canyons, but when he's right he's one of the team's most athletic players with good speed in pass coverage and great hands. He'll rotate with 6-3, 205-pound B.J. Bello, a versatile athlete who fits the position perfectly. A sure tackler, he'll be physical enough to step in and produce.

Watch Out For … redshirt freshman T.J. Neal in the middle. Built for the middle, he could easily move outside to the weakside if Brown gets hurt or could get on the field as a bigger third option depending on the formation. Tough and quick, he'll work behind Monheim but could quickly become one of the team's top tacklers when he gets his chance.
Strength: The starting three. When Brown is healthy, he's a special defender to work the entire defense around. Monheim showed what he could do in the middle and should only get stronger with more time, now that he knows what he's doing. Finney is back and healthy, and now he could be one of the team's biggest surprises with great speed and range at the Star.
Weakness: Physical play against the run. It's an active group that will get around the ball, but it's not going to step up and blast away on someone's ground game. The line has to do its job to hold up, but it's not exactly a brick wall meaning the linebackers have to be nastier.
Outlook: As long as Brown is okay and Monheim keeps developing, this should be one of the team's biggest strengths. Illinois hasn't had problems coming up with nice linebackers, and this young crew should be loaded and productive.
Unit Rating: 7.5

Defensive Backs

After a rocky season giving up way too many big plays, and with the loss of corner Terry Hawthorne to the NFL, the secondary needs to be better. Junior strong safety Earnest Thomas is the only returning starter after finishing fourth on the team with 69 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 210 pounds he has excellent size and moves well coming up with nine tackles against both Indiana and Minnesota. A thumper, he should turn into more of an intimidating force.

Redshirt freshman Taylor Barton was a good recruit from Orlando with great range and ball-hawking skills. He's ready to take over the starting free safety job, battling with 6-1, 195-pound sophomore Nick North, another Florida native with some of the best wheels on the team. A big hitter in high school, he has the upside to be a tremendous nickel and dime defender.

The Illini has to get more big stops from a secondary that was ripped to shreds on the outside. 5-10, 180-pound sophomore V'Angelo Bentley has next-level speed and decent tackling ability, showing off a little of what he could do with 11 tackles with three broken up passes. He'll get a look at one corner job, while 6-0, 180-pound sophomore Eaton Spence is a good all-around athlete who could see time as receiver or running back if he doesn't pan out in the secondary. He made 16 tackles with a sack in his limited time, but now he has to show he can make big plays when the ball is in the air.

Watch Out For … JUCO transfer Zane Petty, but where is he going to play? A top safety prospect who started out at Colorado State, he's probably going to end up working mostly as a dime defender or could see time at corner. At 6-1 and 190 pounds he has great size and excellent tackling ability, but he also tracks the ball well and should see instant action. Also watch out for 5-11, 185-pound corner Darius Mosely, a true freshman who should push for a job right away. He might be the team's best defensive back right out of the box with good smarts and elite cutting ability.
Strength: Upside. It's a youth movement in the secondary with the potential and upside to be fantastic with a little bit of time. It might not happen right away, but in time the speed and talent at all four spots should come through.
Weakness: Proven production. Offenses were able to do whatever they wanted to deep, averaging 13 yards per catch and not getting picked off nearly enough. The Illini secondary came up with a mere four picks with two coming from Josh Hull, who's now a receiver.
Outlook: It might take a little bit of time, but eventually the secondary should be terrific. It might not be this year, though, as there will be a little bit of lump-taking to deal with as the production takes another step back to eventually make a giant leap forward.
Unit Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

Sophomore Taylor Zalewski got a chance to show off his big leg last season nailing a 54-yarder against Purdue and hitting 2-of-4 shots from behind the 40. He has to prove he can be consistent from midrange, but the Illini have a weapon who can bomb away from anywhere inside 50 yards.

The punting game was the team's biggest plus, leading the Big Ten averaging 39.22 yards per try. Junior Justin DuVernois improved his game in a big way by adding more boom to his blasts, averaging 42 yards per try with 19 put inside the 20. He aired it out a big more, and the coverage team helped the cause.

The miserable return game needs far more pop after averaging just 1.56 yards per punt return and 18.83 yards per kickoff return. Defensive back V'Angelo Bentley will try to add more to the punt return game that got just 2.4 yards per try out of Tommy Davis, and he'll step in for Josh Ferguson who averaged 18.1 yards per kickoff return.

Watch Out For … Zalewski. He started to show a little of what he could do last season, and while he'll whiff on a few layups, he'll also bail the team out of a few jams with a deep kick.
Strength: The punting game. For a team that desperately needs good field position, DuVernois' season was massive. He might not be the best punter in the Big Ten, but he works extremely well with the coverage team.
Weakness: Returns. The middling offense got no help whatsoever from the return games. The team finished 107th in the nation in kickoff returns and 118th in punt returns. That has to change, and quickly.
Outlook: The special teams were always lousy under Ron Zook, but they improved a wee bit under the new staff with a decent kicking game and better punting. The kickoff coverage has to be better and there needs to be more from the returners, but the needle is pointing up.
Unit Rating: 6

- 2013 Illinois Preview | 2013 Illinois Offense
- 2013 Illinois Defense | 2013 Illinois Depth Chart