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2009 Illinois Preview - Defense
Illinois DE Doug Pilcher
Illinois DE Doug Pilcher
Posted Jun 25, 2009 2009 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Illinois Preview | 2009 Illinois Offense
- 2009 Illinois Defense | 2009 Illinois Depth Chart
- 2008 Illinois Preview | 2007 Illinois Preview | 2006 Illinois Preview

What you need to know: With such a tremendous offense, the defense just has to be decent. The potential is there to be well above-average if all the question marks are answered positively. Tackles Sirod Williams (torn ACL) and Josh Brent (suspended) are big ifs, while end Jerry Brown (academics) and FS Donsay Hardeman (neck) need to be involved. The move of Martez Wilson from outside linebacker to the middle could mean a big change, considering he's the most talented player to be in the defense's highest profile position, and he could blossom into a superstar, while he's flanked by plenty of tremendous athletes. The secondary loses Vontae Davis at corner, but returns several strong players who should quietly form a solid secondary. However, expect a rough year when it comes to pass defense numbers with less of a pass rush and with opposing offenses bombing away to try to keep up in shootouts.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Martez Wilson, 73
Sacks: Martez Wilson, 3
Interceptions: Dere Hicks, Donsay Hardeman,1

Star of the defense: Junior LB Martez Wilson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DT Corey Liuget
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Tavon Wilson
Best pro prospect: Wilson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wilson, 2) FS Donsay Hardeman, 3) CB Dere Hicks
Strength of the defense: Defensive Back, Athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Line Situation, Veteran Linebackers

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
The big question mark going into the season will be the status of Josh Brent, a 6-2, 315-pound junior who made 34 tackles last season with 1.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss as a key starter over the final eight games of last year. He had problems with a knee injury, but his biggest issue is his standing with the team after getting nailed with a DUI. Suspended from the team, he missed all of spring ball, but Ron Zook is all about talent. Brent will be back.

The other big concern is the knee of Sirod Williams,, a 6-0, 295-pound senior tore his ACL before the season. While he's expected to be ready to go by the start of the season, he's still going to have to make sure everything is sound after being limited in spring ball. He only made six tackles two years ago, but with his NFL strength and his bulk, he'll be a key part of the run defense.

Back at right end will be Doug Pilcher, a spot starter last season who made 21 tackles with 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. He's not the most polished pass rusher, but he's strong enough to power his way into the backfield and should do more now that he'll see more time after rotating with Will Davis. At 6-5 and 265 pounds, he has the size to hold up against the run.

Taking over for Derek Walker on the left side will be senior Antonio James, a promising pass rushing specialist who only made five tackles and a sack last season, but should do far more with more responsibility. One of the team's most versatile linemen, he's extremely quick on the outside but is strong enough to move inside in certain situations even though he's only 6-5 and 255 pounds. 

Projected Top Reserves: 66-4, 265-pound junior Jerry Brown might be the team's best end, but while he's extremely good at getting into the backfield, he's not so great at getting to class. He needs to get academically eligible before he can jump back into the mix after making four tackles as a reserve. With great size and a tremendous speed burst, he could be a key factor if he's eligible.

If there are any more issues with Brent at one tackle spot, 6-3, 290-pound sophomore Corey Liuget will get the start, and he might get the No. 1 job anyway. He a big-time athlete for the inside with too much quickness for most interior offensive linemen and he has grown into stronger, tougher player. He made 26 tackles with 1.5 sacks and five tackles for loss in a good first year.

Sophomore Daryle Ballew is big, too big, at 6-1 and 310 pounds, but he's a load for the inside against the run. While he didn't make any tackles last year, he's supposed to be a big part of the line this year if he can come back healthy from a shoulder problem and if he can get in better shape. He'll likely start out behind Williams.

Watch Out For ... the tackle situation. If Williams and Brent are on the field and in shape ready to roll when Missouri rolls around, then the line will be fine. Liuget is a good player who can take over a starting job after getting the call in two games last year, but the line needs Williams and Brent to be great.
Strength: Size. The tackles have NFL size and strength, while the ends are big enough to hold up against most tackles. The ends are al 255 pounds or bigger, while the tackles are almost all around 300 pounds. 
: Good offensive lines. For all the good things the line has done over the last few years, it has had big problems against the teams with talent. Ohio State and Penn State ran as much as they wanted to last year, while Wisconsin and Missouri were able to power their way when needed.
Outlook: This might be the team's biggest question mark. A sure-thing pass rusher has to emerge on the end, while the tackle situation is still up in the air. No matter what happens between the injury and off-the-field issues, this should be a decent line that will have its moments. However, consistency will be a big issue and there's the prove-it factor. This group has the tools, but they have to translate into production.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters
J Leman made 351 career tackles as a star in the middle. Brit Miller stepped in and had an All-Big Ten season making 132 stops. Middle linebacker is the superstar position in the Illinois defense, but Leman and Miller were good players who didn't have big-time talent. Junior Martez Wilson is a next-level talent who hasn't been able to put it all together yet. Considered every bit the top recruit that Arrelious Benn was in 2006, Wilson has been fine, but nothing special making 29 tackles two years ago before a 73-tackle sophomore season that wasn't as good as the stats would indicate. A good pass rusher, he made three sacks with 5.5 tackles for loss, and now his numbers could go through the roof moving from the weakside to the middle. At 6-4 and 240 pounds he has prototype NFL 3-4 linebacker size and speed, and now he might get the stats and recognition to earn all-star status.

Sophomore Ian Thomas started out spring ball as the top option in the middle, but he'll move to the strongside where he was terrific this offseason. At 6-0 and 225 pounds, and with the speed and athleticism of a safety, he's ideal for the weakside, but he should be strong against the run and holds up well. He didn't start last year and only made four tackles, but he'll be excellent.

Working on the weakside will be Russell Ellington, a 6-2, 225-pound sophomore who spent most of last year on special teams and got a start at linebacker. He made eight stops on the year, and only made one tackle in his start, but he was a top recruit with wide receiver speed and good range. He'll have to fight to hang on to the job, but he has the skills to grow into a producer

Projected Top Reserves: Fighting Ellington for the weakside job will be 6-2, 230-pound Nate Palmer after a nice offseason. The redshirt freshman is a full-tilt motor defender with nice size for the position. Active against the run, at least in practices, he'll be plugged in and will provide a big push for playing time somewhere if Ellington is doing well.

Redshirt freshman Justin Staples is a very athletic, very promising strongside defender. At 6-4 and 225 pounds he's a bit rangy and a bit better suited for the weakside, but he was good this offseason and will be relied on throughout the year as a key backup. He's not out of the hunt for a starting job going into the fall.

Working behind Wilson in the middle is 6-0, 240-pound junior Dustin Jefferson. A big, tough tackler who'd be great on the strongside but should be better in the middle, he's a freakish prospect with high school state-championship sprinting ability and with great range. However, he hasn't done it on the field yet with five tackles last year.

Watch Out For ... Wilson in the middle. If tools can meet with the production that comes with the position in the Illinois defense, the result could be tremendous. All that matters are results, and if Wilson doesn't get the 130+ tackles that past Illini middle linebackers came up with, it'll be a big disappointment.
Strength: Athletes. With Wilson in the middle in place of Miller, the overall athleticism of the linebacking corps has been cranked up big-time. There's speed and quickness at all three spots.
Sure-things. Wilson should shine in the middle, but if he has the season that Miller had last year, everyone would be happy. Thomas, Ellington, and the backups aren't exactly proven.
Outlook: Everything will funnel into Wilson. There can and will be a good rotation on the outside with good athletes making plays on sheer skills, but if Wilson struggles, there will be some scrambling. If Wilson is a superstar, this could be the best linebacking corps in the Zook era by far.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
The one loss in the secondary is Vontae Davis, a freak-of-nature athlete who was taken in the first round by Miami. While he was good enough to leave school early, he wasn't quite as good as he should've been last year playing mostly like someone waiting to go to the NFL. Sophomore Tavon Wilson saw time as a true freshman and made 11 tackles with a broken up pass in his limited time. At 6-0 and 195 pounds he has decent size to go along with excellent speed. He has a non-stop motor and he isn't afraid to get his nose dirty. No, he's not Davis, but he should be more than just serviceable.

Returning on the other side is Dere Hicks, a good all-around defender who has been great against the run with 43 tackles, after making 52 stops two years ago, and made a sack with an interception and five broken up passes. At 5-10 and 175 pounds, the senior isn't all that big, but he's a willing tackler who's physical for his size. To go along with his toughness is his 4.4 speed and 26 career starts, but he needs to be healthy after suffering a leg injury this spring. It's not expected to be a problem.

Senior Donsay Hardeman was a superstar JUCO transfer and the jewel of last year's recruiting class with next-level hitting ability and as much speed and athleticism as most of the cornerbacks. The 6-2, 210-pound senior started eight games at strong safety, but could play anywhere in the secondary, making 44 tackles with an interception. While he was expected to come into his own this year as one of the biggest hitting, most intimidating defensive backs in the Big Ten, he suffered a neck injury and is trying to get healthy for the season. He's expected to play and move over to free safety.

Working at strong safety will be Garrett Edwards, a good tackler and a sound all-around defender, even though he's not the fastest players in the secondary. The 6-2, 210-pound junior made 20 tackles in a reserve role, and got the start at free safety in the season finale against Northwestern. While he's not a blazer, he's a great athlete with nice range.

Projected Top Reserves: If Hardeman is having problems with his neck, 6-0, 195-pound junior Travon Bellamy will step in at strong safety and should be fine after starting 11 times at free safety and making 53 tackles. While he was a good tackler, and while he has the speed to play corner, he missed all of 2006 with a shoulder problem and hasn't done enough with the ball in the air with no interceptions last year and with three broken up passes. He'll see most of his time as a nickel back.

5-11, 175-pound corner Miami Thomas doesn't just have one of the best names in college football, he can play, too. He had a good true freshman season in 2007 making 17 tackles with an interception highlighted by a few big plays late in the huge win over Ohio State, but he missed almost all of last year after undergoing surgeries to his knee and shoulder. He was able to redshirt, and while he's eventually expected to be back, he might need a little while. He has the quickness and the athleticism to become a star over the next three years.

At 6-2 and 220 pounds, junior Nate Bussey is a big free safety with enough experience to step in start in an emergency. He made 21 tackles last year with two broken up passes, but he has to prove he can do more against the pass. A former high school quarterback, he's a smart, athletic player who'll see time in a variety of spots.

Backing up Edwards at strong safety is Bo Flowers, the 25-year-old, 6-2, 215-pound junior who was a star recruit before playing baseball in the Chicago Cub and Detroit Tiger farm systems. He made 23 tackles as a good-hitting, smart playmaker who's one of the leaders in the secondary thanks to his age and experience.
Watch Out For ... Hardman's neck. It's a dicey situation because there could be long-term repercussions if he takes a hit the wrong way, but he's expected to try to give it a go. If he's fine, he'll be one of the league's better safeties. If he's out, then Bellamy steps in and Edwards has to be a rock at strong safety.
Strength: Experience. Even with Davis gone, there's a load of good veteran talent returning with three starters back and enough good depth to come up with a good rotation.
Interceptions. Six. That's how many picks Illinois came up with last year with only four coming from the secondary. Considering how good the pass rush was, there's no excuse for so few big plays.
Outlook: The loss of Davis to the NFL won't be a killer, but it takes away an elite athlete who had to be avoided by most passing games. There are several fantastic speedsters and good hitters, but there isn't any one player who stands out going into the season. That could quickly change if Hicks comes up with a big year and/or if Hardeman is healthy.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Sophomore Matt Eller stepped up and had a nice season hitting 15-of-20 field goals, showing off excellent range highlighted by a 51-yard bomb against UL Lafayette. However, he missed four makeable midrange kicks early on before getting hot. Once he settled down, he nailed nine of his last ten field goals only missing a 43-yarder against Western Michigan.

The punting game was a disaster last year with junior Anthony Santella averaging just 39.4 yards per kick with just 13 put inside the 20. The coverage team didn't provide much help, but he didn't get much blast on his boots. He wasn't great this spring, meaning senior Kyle Yelton could get a shot at the job going into the fall.

With so much speed and athleticism, there should be more from the return game. Arrelious Benn averaged just 7.6 yards per punt return, and he might give way to Jarred Fayson, the Florida transfer who might be a more natural return man. Fayson will also get the first shot at kickoff returns, but A.J. Jenkins isn't out of the mix after averaging 22.3 yards per try with a touchdown.
Watch Out For ... Fayson. Benn and Jenkins are the veterans, but Fayson has the potential to be great. The potential. He only averaged 7.6 yards per punt return at Florida and will have to show more.
Strength: Eller's potential. He came on over the second half of last year and showed off the type of leg that should get him a few chances from 50 yards and beyond.
The special teams over the last few years. A disaster two years ago, the special teams weren't too much better last year finishing 113th in the nation in punt returns, 94th in punt returns, and with lousy coverage teams allowing 10.9 yards per punt return and 23.5 yards per kickoff return.
Outlook: The Illini special teams haven't exactly flourished under Ron Zook. With so much speed and athleticism across the board there should be more from the coverage teams and return games. Eller is a good-looking young kicker, but a lot more is needed from all other areas.
Rating: 5.5