Preview 2007 - Illinois Defense
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What you need to know: The defense never got any credit for
a not-that-bad season. It was good at not giving up long drives
or tons of yards, but it never, ever, ever came through with a
key stop. How strange was the Illini D? It was 33rd in the
nation allowing 310 yards per game, but allowed 26.75 points per
game. This was going to be a good defense returning with J Leman
tackling everything in sight at middle linebacker and Chris
Norwell staring at tackle, and now there's actual talent to get
excited about with the addition of mega-star recruits D'Angelo
McCray on the line and Martez Wilson at linebacker. It'll be an
interesting mix of good senior veterans and more talented
Tackles: J Leman, 152
Sacks: Derek Walker, 5.5
Interceptions: Travon Bellamy, Justin Harrison, Brit Miller,
Star of the defense: Senior LB J Leman
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore
DE Doug Pilcher
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Vontae Davis
Best pro prospect: Junior DE Derek Walker
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Leman, 2) DT Chris
Norwell, 3) Walker
Strength of the defense: Experience, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Developed depth, big stops
Projected Starters: If it wasn't for teammate J Leman, senior
Chris Norwell would be the Big Ten's best unknown defender. A
veteran who simply knows how to make plays, he has 6-6, 290-pound size
against the run making 42 tackles, while he's a tremendous interior pass
rusher with five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. While not an anchor at
one tackle spot, he's a defender to build around.
Next to Norwell will be 280-pound junior David Lindquist,
who made 33 tackles and two sacks to go along with a team-leading four
recovered fumbles. The former star high school hockey and lacrosse
player is an excellent athlete who should thrive with more attention
paid to Norwell.
At one end, junior Derek Walker is starting to generate
an NFL buzz with good speed and quickness in a 6-4, 270-pound body, but
he has to be more consistent. He made 29 tackles with 5.5 sacks, eight
tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hurries, but his production fell off
the map over the second half of the year with no sacks over the final
six games. With his size, he needs to do more against the run.
On the other side will be 6-5, 260-pound sophomore Doug Pilcher,
who made 24 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss starting in ten games. He
needs to develop into a more polished pass rusher, but there's a world
of upside after looking great at times over the second half of the
Projected Top Reserves: While Norwell and
Lindquist are solid on the inside, they might have to make room this
fall once true freshman D'Angelo McCray gets to campus. While
he's still trying to get over a knee injury, the superstar recruit is
good enough to grab a starting job right away with 6-4, 290-pound size
and phenomenal interior pass rushing ability. How good was he? He turned
down places like Florida and Florida State to come to Champaign.
On the end, 235-pound junior Will Davis played in every
game last year and started the last two in place of Pilcher making 18
tackles with two sacks. He's a pure pass rusher who moved over from
being part receiver, part tight end to use his speed to get into the
backfield. While he still has to learn how to handle himself at a Big
Ten level, he has plenty of upside behind Walker.
Watch Out For ... more pressure on the quarterback.
Norwell is great on the inside, McCray, once he gets in, will eventually
be a terror, and Walker is developing into a prototype at end. Even if
the sack totals aren't up there, there will be plenty of hits on the
Strength: Size in the starting four. Norwell and
Lindquist aren't monsters, but having a 270-pound end in Walker and a
260-pound end in Pilcher provides good beef among the starters, but ...
Weakness: Backups. McCray might have more talent than anyone on
the line, but it's asking a lot for a true freshman to be a key
component right away. Davis, even with his potential, is still a work in
progress, and there's a boatload of question marks everywhere else.
Outlook: As long as Walker keeps improving and
Norwell is Norwell, the line has a good foundation to work from.
Developing a steady rotation will be vital, especially come late October
against the stronger Big Ten teams. Staying healthy is vital over the
first half of the year.
Projected Starters: With 22 tackles against Northwestern, 19
against Ohio State, and ten games in all with double-digit tackles, J
Leman was the best linebacker you probably didn't notice last year.
The senior man in the middle has 275 career stops, 29 tackles for loss,
5.5 sacks, and a big buzz starting to be generated. He's 6-2 and 245
pounds with decent range. While he's not lightning fast, he's in on
every play and is a rock against the run.
Leman's running mate is senior Antonio Steele, who's more of a
safety playing linebacker at 6-2 and 210 pounds, but can hit with 85
tackles and five tackles for loss. The former JUCO transfer brought
much-needed speed to the weakside allowing Leman to move to the middle.
On the strongside will be 245-pound junior Brit Miller coming off
a 43 tackle, two interception season. He has the size and toughness to
play in the middle, like he did in 2005, and has the speed to shine on
the outside. Potentially, he could be the rising star of the defense if
he puts all his measurables together.
Projected Top Reserves: Will he be an end or a
linebacker? Will he really be ready to start from day one? Is he really
that good? Illinois got some great recruits this year, but the star of
the show was Martez Wilson,
who had his choice of anywhere in the country to go. He's 6-4, 230
pounds, and has sprinter's speed. Put ten pounds on him and he's a
prototype NFL outside linebacker.
Until Wilson becomes a factor, senior Anthony Thornhill will be
the team's top backup linebacker. His career path has gone downward
making 19 tackles after coming up with 54 as a freshman and 30 as a
sophomore. He's a tremendous athlete with a little more size than Steele
on the weakside.
Behind Leman in the middle is 245-pound Sam Carson, who made six
tackles in five games before getting knocked out for the year with a
hand injury. With his size, he's tough on the inside, but he won't get
much playing time with Leman not likely to ever leave the field.
Watch Out For ... Wilson. He has to find a starting
spot somewhere. Wherever he appears to be the most comfortable, that's
where you put him, even if that means moving Leman to thee outside. This
guy is really that good.
Strength: Tackles. When you have 280 returning
tackles from your starting threesome, you have a good foundation. Even
without Wilson, the linebacking corps will be solid.
Weakness: Impact plays. There might have been a ton of tackles,
but there weren't enough of them when they were really needed. There are
too many big hitters to not force more turnovers.
Outlook: Leman is an All-Big Ten star, Steele is a
reliable hitter on one side, and if Wilson is half as good as his hype,
he'll round out a corps that might be the best in the Big Ten. Don't
discount the idea of Wilson playing on the line, and if he does., knock
down the rating a little bit and up the defensive line rating. In the
end, this will be a great corps that'll put up big stats, but has to do
even more to come up with key stops.
Projected Starters: Three starters return to the secondary with
the one open spot at corner in place of Alan Ball. Sophomore Travon
Bellamy will get the first look after making 15 tackles and two
picks in a reserve role. With 4.4 speed and 6-0, 195-pound size, he has
good tools and should be fine in time.
Manning the other side will be sophomore Vontae Davis, who's
coming off a terrific first year making 43 tackles and an interception.
Now he has to grow into a number one role and use his tremendous
athleticism to make more plays when the ball is in the air. Basically,
he has to turn into Alan Ball.
The safeties are set with the return of seniors Justin Harrison
and Kevin Mitchell after combining for 142 tackles. Harrison is a
good-hitting strong safety who provides a wallop. Originally tried out
as a free safety, he's proven to be better at strong safety. Mitchell
did the opposite, starting out at strong safety before moving to free
safety. While he's a fantastic tackler making 157 stops over the past
two seasons, he hasn't done nearly enough against the pass even with two
interceptions last year.
Projected Top Reserves: Senior Justin Sanders
was supposed to come in right away from the JUCO ranks and take over
a starting safety spot, but he didn't make much of an impact with 19
tackles spread out throughout the year with just one interception.
Billed as a big hitter with cornerback speed, he needs to do more
playing behind Mitchell at free safety.
The most interesting prospect in the secondary is 23-year-old true
freshman Bo Flowers, who was a top recruit in 2002 before
choosing to spend the last four years playing baseball for the Chicago
Cubs and Detroit farm systems. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, he's a big strong
safety and will push Harrison for time.
Watch Out For ... this to be one of the Big Ten's
better secondaries, but there aren't any superstars. Davis is on the
verge of big things, but this will be a relatively no name group that'll
be strong against mediocre passing games.
Strength: Good hitting safeties. Bellamy and
Mitchell can tackle, and Sanders and Flowers are good playmakers waiting
in the wings. They'll be great against the run.
Weakness: Consistency. The overall stats look fine, but the
secondary had major problems in three of the final four games (oddly
enough, the one good game was against Ohio State) and didn't do nearly
enough to come up with the big stop on third downs. Even so ...
Outlook: While there were too many yards allowed
late in the year, the Illini only gave up more than one touchdown pass
in a game in one of the final eight games and three times all year. With
a good starting foursome, and promising young players providing good
depth, this will be an upper-division pass defense.
Projected Starters: Illinois is set at placekicker, but still
working out the punting issues. Senior Jason Reda hit 15 of 19
field goals, but he didn't show a whole bunch of range with his longest
kick coming from 41 yards out. He can hit from 50 yards out, but he
didn't get the opportunities last year. Sophomore Kyle Yelton was
awful last season averaging just 37.4 yards per punt with just six put
inside the 20.
Watch Out For ... Punter Anthony Santella. While
third on the depth chart coming out of spring ball, he has a better leg
than Yelton or Jared Bosch. He might see time when a bomb is needed.
Strength: Reda. If he can just be a bit more
consistent from beyond 40 yards, he'll be an All-Big Ten kicker.
Weakness: Punt coverage and the return game. Yelton isn't
anything special, but he didn't get a whole bunch of help from the
coverage team. The returners did next to nothing last year to help an
Outlook: 117th in the nation in punting. 111th in
punt returns. 72nd in kickoff returns. The Illini needs a lot of help to
make the special teams a positive. With better all-around talent and
athletes, the coverage teams should be better. Reda will be fine, and
there are options to try to come up with some sort of a punting game.