2007 Illinois Preview - Defense

Posted May 23, 2007

Preview 2007 Illinois Fighting Illini Defense Preview


Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2007 - Illinois Defense

- 2007 Illinois Preview | 2007 Illinois Offense Preview
2007 Illinois Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Illinois Preview

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 underclassmen.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: J Leman, 152
Sacks: Derek Walker, 5.5
Interceptions: Travon Bellamy, Justin Harrison, Brit Miller, 2

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

Defensive Line

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 season.

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 passer.
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 ...
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.
Rating: 6


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.
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.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

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.
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.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

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.
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 inconsistent offense.
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.
Rating: 6


Related Stories
2007 Illinois Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  May 23, 2007
2007 Illinois Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  May 23, 2007
2007 Illinois Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  May 23, 2007

Add Topics to My HotList
Get free email alerts with news about your favorite topics. Click link to add to My HotList.
Football > Illinois
[View My HotList]