2009 Illinois Preview - Defense
Illinois DE Doug Pilcher
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense
Preview 2009 - Defense
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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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Weakness: 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
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.
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
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
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.
Weakness: 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Weakness: 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.
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
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.
Weakness: 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.