Illinois Preview 2006 - Defense
Illinois Illini
Posted Aug 6, 2006

Illinois Fighting Illini Preview 2006 - Illinois Defense

What you need to know ... The Illini defense showed heart and never gave up, but it was horrible with several players not fitting what Ron Zook and defensive coordinator Vince Okruch want to do. Speed is at a premium, and it'll take some more growing pains for the fast, young defenders to get their feet wet. Being more physical is priority one after getting shoved all over the place last year finishing with the nation's worst run defense. The line will be the biggest problem until halfway through the season, but there are several linebacker options and good safeties.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Kevin Mitchell, 78
Sacks: Chris Norwell, 3
Interceptions: Four players with 1

Star of the defense: Junior DT Chris Norwell
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DEs Sirod Williams and Derek Walker
Unsung star on the rise: Junior SS Justin Sanders
Best pro prospect: Sophomore LB Brit Miller
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Norwell, 2) CB Alan Ball, 3) Miller
Strength of the defense: Experience, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Pass rush, corner

Defensive Line
The line was stunningly awful last season generating little to no consistent pass rush and having major problems holding up against the run. It'll be better, but it's not going to be anything to get excited about despite the expected emergence of promising young players like ends Sirod Williams, Derek Walker and Xavier Fulton. Chris Norwell is an All-Big Ten caliber tackle, but there's no one other tackle on the roster who'd sniff a starting spot for another Big Ten team. The hope is for several freshman to provide some instant help.
The key to the unit: Quit getting pushed around so much in the running game and hope for a consistent pass rusher to emerge.
Defensive Line Rating: 5.5

Projected Starters
- DE Sirod Williams, Soph. - 15 tackles, 1 TFL 
Williams showed a little bit of promise as a freshman starting three games at end. He's quick, very strong, and big at 270 pounds, but he's still a raw talent that'll have to fight through some growing pains to become a Big Ten caliber lineman.

- DT Josh Norris, Sr. - 6 tackles, 1 TFL
Norris is undersized at 5-11 and 270 pounds, but he's one of the team's best players in the weight room. He's a former walk-on who has a little bit of experience, but he'll have to be part of a rotation to make up for his size.

- DT Chris Norwell. Jr. - 46 tackles, 3 sacks, 7.5 TFL
By far the team's best lineman, the 6-6, 290-pound junior has the quickness to go along with his size. He's a strong interior pass rusher with defensive end moves. He's one of the few players up front the team can work around.

- DE Derek Walker, Soph. - 26 tackles, 1 sack, 6 TFL
Walker has all the tools to be special with a chiseled 6-4, 270-pound frame and great speed around the edge. With his experience he needs to step up his overall level of play and become a dominant pass rusher.

Top Backups
- DE Xavier Fulton, Jr. - 13 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 quarterback hurries
A knee injury knocked him out of last year, and academics have kept him out of the mix this spring. He's a good-sized natural pass rusher who needs to get back in the mix right away this fall to push for time at one of the end spots, or at least provide quality depth.
- DT David Lindquist, Soph. - 9 tackles, 1 TFL
It'll be a shock if he doesn't end up taking over a starting role. He's 6-3 and an athletic 280 pounds showing great promise as a reserve. He was a star high school lacrosse and hockey player.

Is there enough speed? Ron Zook needs fast linebackers with great range to be the top playmakers all over the field, but last year's corps was painfully slow with the athletic playmakers way too young to overcome their mistakes. Things should change this year with sophomores Brit Miller, Sam Carson and Remond Willis providing speed as well as experience. J. Leman has been a key defender for the last two seasons, but he might be squeezed out of a spot to get more athleticism on the field.
The key to the unit: Making the pieces fit. Either the coaching staff will have to live with several big mistakes from the emerging playmakers, or it'll have to stick with some veterans that can't really do what's needed in the attacking D.
Linebacker Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- Brit Miller, Soph. - 46 tackles, 1 sack, 4.5 TFL
Miller grew into a productive player in the middle finishing the season with 12 tackles against Northwestern. Along with his size at 245 pounds, he has terrific speed and enough range to grow into a strong playmaker for the next three seasons. He still needs work, but it'll be worth waiting for him to fight through the mistakes.

- J. Leman, Jr. - 67 tackles, 5.5 TFL
The team's top veteran on the defensive front seven, Leman is a rock solid defender on the outside with 123 tackles in his first two seasons. However, he's not all that fast and doesn't quite fit the Illinois defensive scheme. He can play and is one of the few good defenders against the run with good size at 240 pounds.

- Antonio Steele, Jr.
The JUCO transfer isn't all that big at 210 pounds, but he has the needed speed to be a better option on the weakside than J. Leman. He's a former safety who spent the last year getting stronger to handle the work up front. His emergence is one of the keys to the defense.

Top Backups
- Remond Willis, Soph. - 54 tackles, 1 sack, 6.5 TFL
The star high school running back spent last year getting his feet wet in the middle. He has the speed needed to be a star in the defense at any position and should push for starting time on the outside. He's 240 pounds and fast enough to grow into a great weakside defender, but he'll start out in the middle.
- Sam Carson, Soph. - 20 tackles. 2 TFL
The 245-pound sophomore is a sure tackler suited more for the middle than the outside, but he'll get the first look at the strongside to use his strength to add more to the run defense. He'll find a space as a starter somewhere.

Defensive Backs
The Illinois secondary made three more interceptions than you did last year on the way to finishing second-to-last in America in pass efficiency defense. Part of the problem came from a lack of a pass rush allowing quarterbacks to get comfortable and wait for patterns to develop, but the secondary didn't make nearly enough big plays and the corners repeatedly got torched. There's no experienced depth to count on, but there are two good young players in JUCO transfer Justin Sanders at safety and speedy Dere Hicks at corner to upgrade things, but safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison have to make far more plays when the ball is in the air. Alan Ball is a decent player, but corner is an issue. Expect the depth chart to change wildly over the first few weeks of the season.
The key to the unit: Break up passes and start covering someone.
Secondary Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- CB Sharriff Abdullah, Sr. - 27 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 broken up passes
Abdullah is a speedy veteran who isn't afraid to get his nose dirty and make a tackle, but he's not enough of a playmaker against fast receivers and at 5-8 and barely 170 pounds has major problems with bigger ones.

- SS Kevin Mitchell, Jr. - 78 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 broken up passes
The 200-pound junior led the team in tackles last year and one of the team's steadier all-around defenders, but he might be keeping the seat warm before JUCO transfer Justin Sanders takes over. He might move over to be a back up free safety to make room for Sanders and bring more speed to the run defense.

- FS Justin Harrison, Jr. - 63 tackles, 1 interception, 1 broken up pass, 1.5 TFL
Harrison is a 220-pound free safety with nice range, but he did next to nothing against the pass last year. He's one of the better defenders in the back seven and has to be on the field somewhere and could end up at strong safety if needed.

- CB Alan Ball, Sr. - 55 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 interception, 5 broken up passes
It took a little while, but Ball started to show off impressive ability towards the end of last year. He's the team's best defensive back with track star speed and good size at 6-1. He has to be a consistent shut down corner right off the bat and the defensive back the others work around.

Top Backups
- SS Justin Sanders, Jr.
Sanders is as strong as any of the linebackers and should be one of the team's best run defenders. Can he push Kevin Mitchell out of the starting strong safety job? If he's as good as advertised, he should be able to use his speed and tackling ability to quickly become a star.
- CB Dere Hicks, Fr.
Fast, fast, fast. He's a legitimate  4.4 runner with a little more size than Sharriff Abdullah at corner. He has the talent and the technique to be a starter from day one, or at least a strong reserve.

Special Teams
The kickers will be fine, even true freshman punter Kyle Yelton replacing star Steve Weatherford, but the rest of the special teams needs an overhaul of mega-proportions. The coverage units were abysmal allowing 32.1 yards on kickoffs and 15.3 yards on punt returns while only averaging 4.56 yards per punt returns, good enough to finish 114th in the nation. Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey are talented kick returners, but they need room to move.
The key to the unit: Get more consistency from PK Jason Reda and stop someone on kick and punt returns.
Special Teams Rating: 5.5

Projected Starters
- PK Jason Reda, Jr. - 13-20 FGs, 20-20 extra points
Outside of a bad day against Iowa, Reda had a strong season showing good range hitting from 52 yards against Indiana. Consistency has been an issue, but that should improve now that he's experienced. His strong leg should make him a weapon to bail out the offense.
- P Kyle Yelton, Fr.
Yelton was one of the year's top punting recruits, but he has massive shoes to fill replacing Steve Weatherford and his 42.6-yard average. He'll have a little bit of a battle on his hands against some other recruits, but the job should be his for the next four years.

Related Stories
Illinois Preview 2006 - Depth Chart
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Illinois Preview 2006 - Further Analysis
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Illinois Preview 2006 - Offense
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