2008 Illinois Preview - Defense
Illinois CB Vontae Davis
Illinois CB Vontae Davis
Posted Apr 28, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Illinois Preview | 2008 Illinois Offense
- 2008 Illinois Defense | 2008 Illinois Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Illinois Preview | 2006 CFN Illinois Preview

What you need to know:
The defense never got any credit for a not-that-bad 2006 season, and it got glossed over by all the attention given to the offense in 2007. It wasn't a killer, but it was strong against the run and it didn't get pasted outside of the beginning (Missouri) and the end (USC). This year's group doesn't have the same experience, but it should be more athletic with the star recruits of the last few years about to shine. The strength is a line that gets all the key parts back. The other top recruit from two years ago, Martez Wilson, adds an NFL-caliber body at outside linebacker, while Brit Miller is about to blossom into a star moving from the outside to J Leman's spot in the middle. The secondary isn't anything special, but Vontae Davis is one of the best corners in the country.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Vontae Davis, 76
Sacks: Will Davis, 9.5
Interceptions: Vontae Davis, 4

Star of the defense: Junior CB Vontae Davis
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore SS Travon Bellamy
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB Brit Miller
Best pro prospect: Davis
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Davis, 2) Miller, 3) LB Martez Wilson
Strength of the defense: Line, corner
Weakness of the defense:
safety, proven corner depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
With one-time star tackle prospect D'Angelo McCray gone, 6-0, 292-pound senior Sirod Williams should be able to fill in and shine. He didn't see too much action making six tackles and a tackle for loss in 12 games of work, but with defensive end quickness and athleticism and with tackle strength, he should be more than fine if he gets the job.

Next to Williams will be senior David Lindquist, a good 6-3, 288-pound veteran who made 46 tackles with 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. A fantastic athlete, he played high school hockey and lacrosse, he's an active inside presence with a good motor and drive. He might not be a true anchor like Norwell was and McCray will be, but he's productive.

Senior Derek Walker had a nice season, but not as good a year as he should've had. He has an NFL combination of 6-4 and 270-pound size with good speed and quickness, but he has to be more consistent and he has to use his experience and skills to make more than 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

On the other side will likely be senior Will Davis, a 6-3, 268-pound pass rusher who stepped into the starting role four games into the season and finished with 41 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 12.5 tackles for loss. The former wide receiver and tight end has bulked up and should be even stronger against the run while still being a terror in the backfield. He'll earn All-Big Ten honors.

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:
D'Angelo McCray was a superstar recruit two years ago and was trying to get over a knee injury that kept him on the sidelines last year, but ithe 6-4, 333-pound potential star decided to transfer to Eastern Illinois.

While Davis grew into a star once he took over the job, it moved junior Doug Pilcher to the bench after he started the first four games. The 6-5, 266-pounder made 25 tackles, 5.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss as he grew into a nice reserve who can play either end spot when needed. While he's not the most polished pass rusher, he's effective and has a good motor.

Adding more bulk to the inside will be 6-2, 325-pound sophomore Josh Brent, who stepped in as a true freshman and made eight tackles with 1.5 sacks. A huge recruit, literally, he had his pick of any Big Ten school but stayed at home. Now he'll be expected to work in the rotation behind Williams and McCray before taking over a job next year.

It's not like the Illini needs more help on the end, but it'll get it with 6-5, 255-pound junior Antonio James needing more work as an understudy behind Walker. He saw a little bit of time in almost every game last year making seven tackles with a sack, but he has the upside to do far more in a pass rushing role. He could become a specialist. 

Watch Out For ... this to be the strength of the team. Considering the offensive line might be among the ten most productive in the nation, the D line still might be better. Ron Zook has hinted that this is the best college defensive line he has ever been around.
Strength: Size and pass rushing ability. The Illini can go light and quick on the inside with Williams and Lundquist, or it can go big and beefy with Brent. Walker and Davis would be tackles at most places.
USC. The line was humming along all season long doing a terrific job, and then it gave up a season-high 180 yards and three touchdowns to Ohio State in the win in Columbus. That's still not that bad, but USC came up with 344 yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. Which Illinois will show up against the top offensive lines?
Outlook: If Walker and Davis do what they did last year, and maybe take another step up, this could be the Big Ten's best defensive line. There's size, athleticism, and talent, and considering the coaching staff likes to keep a steady rotation going, it used ten players in a rotation last year, there will be plenty of work for everyone.
Rating: 9


Projected Starters
All J Leman did in the middle of the Illini linebacking corps was make 351 career tackles and 132 last year. However, as good as he was, he wasn't drafted. He wasn't all that fast, but he made plays. 6-1, 252-pound senior Brit Miller is that fast and that athletic with NFL measurables in a big body suited for the middle. He made 62 tackles as the starter on the strongside last season, and now he'll move to the middle where he should have even better range than Leman. Will he have the same instincts? That remains to be seen.

With Miller moving to the middle, it'll be up to Martez Wilson to live up to his hype on the strongside. If Arrelious Benn was the No. 1 player in the epic 2006 recruiting class, Wilson was No. 1A. With his choice of anywhere in the country to play, the 6-4, 246-pound sophomore made a huge splash by choosing the Illini, and he came through with a nice first season making 29 tackles with tow sacks and three tackles for loss as a key reserve. While he could potentially bulk up even more and become an end, he has prototype NFL 3-4 outside linebacker measureables with sprinter's speed in that big frame.

Mostly a special teamer so far, 6-2, 242-pound senior Rodney Pittman will step in on the weakside in place of Antonio Steele, who finished second on the team with 89 stops. He was used as a regular backup and got the start against Syracuse, but he finished with just four tackles and a sack with two tackles for loss. He's very fast and very smart, and now he has to use his size and experience to be a big-time contributor.

Projected Top Reserves: Pushing for the open weakside job will be Ian Thomas, a top prospect from the 2006 recruiting class who has the strength of a lineman and the speed and athleticism of a safety. The 6-0, 223-pounder will be a regular in the rotation behind Pittman.

At some points soon, 6-0, 230-pound sophomore Dustin Jefferson will be a major factor. A big, tough tackler who's perfect on the strong side, he was a state-championship caliber sprinter in high school and a productive player both in the backfield and against the run. His future might be on the weakside as he starts out playing behind Wilson on the strongside.

6-1, 249-pound senior Sam Carson worked behind J Leman for three years, missed half of 2006 with a hand injury, and had a hard time getting into the rotation last year finishing with just six tackles despite playing in every game. He's been around long enough to be ready to step in either in the middle or the strongside without missing a beat.

Watch Out For ... Wilson. He's the signature defense star waiting to happen. Last season just scratched the surface of how good he can become, and now he should be a disruptive all-around playmaker as the full-time starter.
Strength: Athletes. Even with losing the team's top two leading tacklers in Leman and Steele, the Illini have upgraded the athleticism in a big way with Wilson getting the starting nod and Miller moving to the middle. This group can run.
Weakside. Pittman might put up stats and he shouldn't be a liability, but he's serviceable compared to Miller and Wilson. There might be a different starter checking in sooner than later.
Outlook: It'll be an interesting corps. Leman might have been slower than the third act of a Judd Apatow film, but he made a ton of tackles and was a great leader for the defense. Miller makes the position faster and more dangerous, but he has to prove he can be as effective. Wilson needs to play up to the hype for the corps to be as good as last year's group, while some of the good young athletes have to ready to step in and produce.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
Junior Vontae Davis has one more year in Champaign before he's off making millions at the next level. The 6-0, 204-pound brother of San Francisco 49er tight end, Vernon, is a blow-'em-up type of hitter with 4.4 speed in a 6-0, 204-pound frame. A first-team All-Big Ten selection, he was fourth on the team with 76 tackles last season to go along with four interceptions and eight broken up passes, but stats don't show just how much of a tone-setter he was.

Returning on the other side is 5-10, 179-pound junior Dere Hicks, a decent all-around defender who was good against the run with 52 tackles, but he didn't do enough against the better receivers. He made two interceptions and broke up five passes, and now he has to use his 4.4 speed and experience to do more with teams looking to stay away from Davis.

Taking over the strong safety job from third-leading tackler Justin Harrison will be junior Travon Bellamy, a 6-0, 207-pound speedster who's built more like a corner, and was used there two years ago making 15 tackles before getting hurt. He misses all of last year with a shoulder problem, and now he returns to use his speed and hitting ability as a safety. Can he hold up for a full season as a strong safety?

6-2, 210-pound sophomore Nate Bussey will step in for Kevin Mitchell at free safety after making nine stops. A special teamer so far, he's a former high school quarterback who has the natural build and athleticism to be a top free safety. He'll be able to hit, but he has to prove he can cover like Mitchell, who led the team with five interceptions and 11 broken up passes.

Projected Top Reserves: Clear out one of the safety spots for 6-2, 220-pound JUCO superstar Donsay Hardeman, the jewel of this year's recruiting class. A next-level hitter with as much speed and athleticism as any corner on the Illini, he can play anywhere in the secondary and could be used as a kick and punt returner if needed.

Pushing hard for one of the safety jobs will be sophomore Bo Flowers, a 24-year-old who was a top recruit in 2002 before choosing to spend four years for the Chicago Cub and Detroit Tiger farm systems. At 6-2 and 218-pounds, he's build like a strong safety, but he'll likely start out working behind Bussey as a free safety after making five tackles in a limited role.

Miami Thomas isn't a rip-off of Indiana Jones. He's a 5-11, 176-pound sophomore who made 17 tackles with an interception in a nice first year as a reserve corner. While he's not all that big, he's quick and tough, and he'll have to be ready to step into a starting role next year if/when Davis is off to the NFL.

Watch Out For ... Hardeman to step in right away. He's a ready made Big Ten starting safety who brings size and playmaking ability to a secondary that needs a safety with both.
Strength: Davis. Everything revolves around him. He could step in and produce at any of the four positions. It'll be a shock if he's not a first-team All-Big Ten star, with a little bit of All-America recognition.
Efficient passing teams. Even with a good pass rush to help out, the Illini struggled to do much of anything against the better quarterbacks outside of Ball State's Nate Davis. Oddly enough, the best game came against Ohio State, if you don't count the Western Illinois showdown. Everyone else had few problems moving the ball through the air.
Outlook: This is a decent group, but not a great one. Davis is the star of the show who makes everything better, but there has to be more big plays against the better passers, and the big yards have to be kept to a minimum. Opponents completed 59% of their passes and averaged 11.2 yards per pass with 21 touchdowns. That's not great.
Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Gone is the rock-solid Jason Reda, who nailed 16 of 18 field goals last year. Sophomore Matt Brandabur and junior Michael Cklamovski will battle to take over the duties with Brandabur having the early lead. opportunities last year. Both have nice legs, but the 261-pound Cklamovski has a cannon and will be used on kickoffs.

Sophomore Anthony Santella will handle the punting duties again, and he has to be better after averaging a minuscule 37.7 yards per kick with 17 put inside the 20. He doesn't have a big, booming led, but it's not that bad. Now he has to be more consistent, and he needs more help from the coverage team.

More pop is needed from the return game. Arrelious Benn will get more work after averaging 28 yards per kickoff return on his 10 tries, while Kyle Hudson will likely get the first look as the punt returner again after averaging jut 7.1 yards per attempt.

Watch Out For ... the placekicking to be an issue. The Illini didn't really win or lose a game because of Reda last year, but this year's team will likely need a clutch kick or two if it wants to win the Big Ten title. Can Brandabur get it done?
Strength: Benn as a kickoff returner. He was the only return man who did much of anything last year, and now he'll get more work to come up with more than the rest of the options were able to. The kick coverage team was solid allowing just 18.5 yards per return.
Everything other than Reda last year. Nothing really worked, and now the return game, the punting, and the punt coverage team needs an overhaul.
Outlook: There were some improvements. The punting game went from 117th in the nation to 92nd and 111th in punt returns to 88th, but the kickoff returning was far worse and there wasn't much overall production outside of Reda. Now the placekicking is a question mark and Santella is still the punter.
Rating: 5