2010 Illinois Preview – Defense
Illinois NT Corey Liuget
Illinois NT Corey Liuget
Posted Jul 6, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Defense

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2010 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: There's way too much experience and way too many good athletes to not be far, far better. After finishing dead last in the Big Ten in total defense, points allowed, sacks, and tackle for loss, the Illini D welcomes in Vic Koenning, a veteran coach who knows how to generate production. The hope is for Koenning's hybrid position, the Bandit, can make the defense more aggressive and more disruptive with an end/linebacker able roam around depending on the opponent. The hope is for Martez Wilson to return 100% after suffering a neck injury, and the man in the middle of the linebacking corps has some nice players on the outside in Ian Thomas and Nate Bussey to help him out. Corey Liuget has to be a rock against the run on the defensive interior, while all-star Clay Nurse has to turn his game up a few notches on the end and be a down-in and down-out pass rusher. The secondary hasn't done nearly enough over the last few years and needs to hope the experience can make all the difference.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ian Thomas, 95
Sacks: Clay Nurse, 5.5
Interceptions: Tavon Wilson, 1

Star of the defense: Junior LB Martez Wilson
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore CB Terry Hawthorne
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB/DE Michael Buchanan
Best pro prospect: Wilson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Wilson, 2) DE Clay Nurse, 3) LB Ian Thomas
Strength of the defense: Experience, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Takeaways, Pass Rush

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The spotlight will be on the Bandit, the linebacker/end hybrid who's the star of the Vic Koenning defense. That means sophomore Michael Buchanan has to go from being a special teamer who came up with one quarterback hurt and a broken up pass, but without any tackles as a true freshman, to a consistent playmaker. The 6-6, 225-pounder has the smarts to do it, and he has the tackling ability. The key will be to always be in the right place, and he'll also be allowed to get into the backfield and to the quarterback on a regular basis.

Needing to provide more burst and pop on the outside after starting over most of the second half of last year is Clay Nurse , a 6-3, 260-pounder who was part of the pipeline from Maryland. A special teamer two years ago, and a bit of a disappointment, he became the team's top pass rusher earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors making 13 tackles with 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Extremely quick, he has the athleticism along with the upside to get a look in an NFL camp, but first he has to prove he can produce on a regular basis.

The last thing the line needed was to lose a rock of a defensive tackle like Josh Brent, but he flunked out of school and decided to try the NFL rather than stick with the JUCO route. That means former end Glenn Foster has to play a huge role on the inside after failing to make a play in his three appearances. Way undersized for the interior, the 6-4, 260-pound sophomore has to use his speed and quickness to be a dangerous interior presence, and he has the talent to do it. A top recruit two years ago, he's overdue to blossom.

6-3, 300-pound junior Corey Liuget might not be a rock of a nose tackle, but he's extremely strong and is a phenomenal athlete for the position. The veteran from Miami has been a nice part of the equation for the last few seasons, following up a 26-tackle first year with 36 stops, 2.5 sacks, and eight tackles for loss, and now after starting four times last year he should blow up with even more responsibility.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Whitney Mercilus should be ready to take on a big role as part of the end rotation. If and when the defense doesn't use a Bandit and goes with two pure ends, the 6-3, 265-pounder will step in and he'll need to shine as a pass rusher. A great recruit two years ago, he got a little bit of time last year making eight tackles with a tackle with 3.5 tackles for loss as he came on over the second half of the season. He could become a dangerous pass rushing specialist.

Joining in the rotation at the Bandit will be 6-3, 220-pound Nate Palmer , a very smart, very promising pass rusher who has the raw quickness to go along with the head to be able to grow into a key decision maker. He only made three tackles last season, working mostly on special teams, but he'll be a statistical star when he gets his chances.

Redshirt freshman Akeem Spence will play a role somewhere in the interior. With 6-1, 305-pound size and phenomenal strength, he's the type of player who sits in the middle of the line and eats everything that comes his way. He's just quick enough to get into the backfield on a regular basis, but his worth will be as an anchor against the run.

Watch Out For … Buchanan. He's a good prospect who'd flourish as a thin end or a pass rushing outside linebacker, and now he gets to combine all his skills in the defense's glory position. For this to work, he, or anyone playing the Bandit, has to be one of the team's leading tacklers.
Strength: Quickness. All four spots will be manned by ultra-quick, ultra-athletic players who move well and can find their way to the ball and occasionally into the backfield. This isn't a consistent group, but the potential is there to do far more.
Weakness: Pass rush. Yeah, the potential is there to do more, but the production has to start coming. The Illini were dead last in the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles for loss even with a nice season from Nurse. Everyone can move, and now the athleticism has to translate into plays behind the line.
Outlook: The line might have been a plus if Josh Brent wasn't such a knucklehead, but it could quietly be one of the team's most improved units with a slew of underclassmen with just enough experience to become a factor. This is Wave Two of the recruiting front under Ron Zook coming to fruition with Foster, Buchanan, Palmer, and Spence all needing to show that the future is now.
Unit Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: Junior Martez Wilson is way overdue for a great season. With 6-4, 250-pound size and an NFL body with the athleticism and talent to match, Wilson was one of the crown jewels of the 2007 recruiting class. After playing well with a 29-tackle true freshman season, he followed it up with 69 tackles and three sacks in a nice sophomore year. However, he didn't show anything special and the belief was that he was on the verge of blowing up with the experience to go along with the top-shelf skills. It looked like it was all coming together with nine tackles in the opener against Missouri, but he suffered a herniated disc in his neck and was out for the year. Fortunately it happened so early that he has been able to use the last year to heal up, and now he has to show he's a player. The measurables scream starting NFL linebacker in a 3-4, but he has to do more than just look the part as the main man in the middle.

When Martez Wilson went down, junior Ian Thomas stepped up and became a major factor leading the team with 95 stops with a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. He has the speed and athleticism of a safety and is ideal for the weakside, and now he should do far more with a veteran group around him. At 6-0 an 240 pounds he has the size and he gets to the ball in a hurry and doesn't miss a stop. While he made 13 tackles against Missouri, he got better as the year went on to finish with double digit stops in five of the last seven games.

Back at a starting job after being a key part of the corps at the end of last year, 6-2, 220-pound senior Nate Bussey should be better in a more natural spot. Used as a free safety, the former high school quarterback was eventually moved to the middle and around the linebacking corps where he finished with 42 tackles but didn't do anything to get into the backfield. Far better suited for the strongside, he should be better without to hold up on the inside. Now he has to use his athleticism to be more disruptive.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Russell Ellington got some work last year starting five times and finishing with 42 tackles with an interception taken 78 yards against Illinois State. At 6-2 and 235 pounds he has good size for the weakside and tremendous speed. A top recruit with wide receiver wheels, the skills are there to put up big numbers when he gets on the field.

6-2, 230-pound sophomore Evan Frierson has the ability to step in and produce if something happens to Martez Wilson. A nice-looking tackler who came up with 19 tackles and two tackles for loss, he needs to make more big plays considering he started five times and was a regular in the rotation. Able to play on the strongside of the middle, he's versatile enough to make an impact no matter where he works.

Sophomore Ashante Williams is built like a safety at 5-10 and 205 pounds, but he's mega-tough and is a nasty enough tackler to see time on the strongside. He got in a little bit of playing time making nine tackles with two broken up passes in eight games.

Watch Out For … Wilson. If he can stay healthy and if he's able to use all his talents to finally make big things happen on the field, he has limitless upside. On looks and talent he's an all-star; he's overdue to be great.
Strength: Experience. If Wilson is back up to snuff, this has the potential to be a whale of a linebacking corps with Thomas and Bussey forming a nice 1-2 punch on the outside and with Wilson a likely 100-tackle playmaker in the middle. The backups have seen enough time to form a nice rotation.
Weakness: Big plays. With all the talent and all the tremendous athleticism, where are the plays behind the line? Where are the monster pops and forced fumbles? The linebackers have looked like Tarzan and have played like, well, not Jane, but Jane's older brother.
Outlook: With speed, skill, and a first-round type of talent in Wilson anchoring the corps, there's no reason this can't be among the Big Ten's most productive groups. That has been said over the last few seasons, but this time it could be for real.
Unit Rating: 7


Projected Starters: The secondary needed someone to step up and replace Vontae Davis, and while junior Tavon Wilson was by no means the same sort of athletic player, he came up with a decent season finishing third on the team with 74 tackles with an interception and a team-leading seven broken up passes. At 6-0 and 205 pounds he has great size and hits like a safety, and after a great offseason he's due to be in the mix for all-star honors.

Sophomore Terry Hawthorne took over the starting job late in the year and got the call in the final five games finishing with 30 tackles with a pick (for a 44-yard score against Minnesota) and five broken up passes. At 6-0 and 185 pounds he has decent size and the speed to be used as a kick and punt returner. While he wasn't always a rock against the better targets, he showed great promise and upside after a nice true freshman campaign.

Senior Travon Bellamy started most of 2008 at free safety and made 53 tackles, and he was used as a spot starter at corner as well as a nickel and dime defender. At 6-0 and 205 pounds he has a nice mix of size to go along with his speed, but he has to be a bigger playmaker after failing to come up with a pick and not breaking up any passes. The team's most versatile defensive back came up with 23 tackles and a sack, and now he'll get his chance to do more as the starting strong safety.

Junior Supo Sanni was mostly a special teamer over his first two seasons and has seen a little bit of time in the secondary making 20 career stops with a broken up pass. At 6-3 and 215 pounds he's a tall, athletic defender with nice upside and potential, and now the hope is for the former Illinois high school all-star to be steady as a replacement for Donsay Hardeman.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Walt Aikens came up with a good freshman season starting five times with four at free safety and one at strong safety, but he's in the doghouse after being arrested for possession of stolen property. While he's expected to still be a part of the team, the defense can't count on him to be a major part of the strong safety rotation. He's built more like a corner at 6-1 and 180 pounds and is a great open-field tackler making 32 tackles. Now he has to make plays when the ball is in the air.

The hope is for JUCO transfer Trulon Henry to be ready right away. The 6-2, 225-pound brother of former star receiver Arrelious Benn made 96 tackles in ten games for College of DuPage, and now he'll get every show to take over the starting free safety job. With his hitting ability and range he could play either safety spot or be used as a nickel defender.

Florida and LSU wanted Pat Nixon-Youiman, but Illinois got him. The 5-10, 175-pound sophomore from Jacksonville made a tackle in the season finale, but that was about it for his redshirt freshman season. He has the tackling skills to be great in the open field with the ability to be used in nickel and dime packages when needed.

Watch Out For … the backup corner situation. The Illini has to find playmakers to come up with interceptions on the outside. Wilson is a lock at one spot and Hawthorne is fine at the other, but it will be a big help if Miami Thomas can come back from a knee injury and if Nixon-Youiman plays up to his potential.
Strength: Experience. This was a veteran group going into last year and now it's REALLY experienced with three returning starters and a slew of promising backup options. Athleticism isn't an issue and everyone can tackle.
Weakness: Interceptions. The Illini secondary simply doesn't pick off passes. The defense came up with six in 2008 and a mere five last year … and tackle Doug Pilcher came up with one. The secondary doesn't do nearly enough.
Outlook: A major disappointment over the last few years, there's too much experience and too many good veterans to be so bad so often. The secondary has been ripped up way too easily and the game-changing plays have been next to nil over the last few years. With the veterans returning, there's no reason the Illini can't get more out of the defensive backs, but the expectations are set low.
Unit Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Derek Dimke stepped in and hit all five of his field goal attempts and was 12-of-12 on extra points while also serving as the kickoff specialist. He didn't get in until the end of the year, but he managed to bomb away with a 48-yarder against Northwestern and a 44-yarder against Fresno State. Now he'll get the chance to show what he can do for a full season and will get plenty of chances to show off his deep range.

Senior Anthony Santella came up with a solid season after a disastrous 2008. He boosted is net from 39.4 yards per try to 41.3 while putting 16 inside the 20 and forcing 19 fair catches. While he might not be an all-star, he's a smart, consistent kicker who should be a key weapon to bail the team out of several jams.

After a nightmare of a season with the return game, sophomore corner Terry Hawthorne will get the first look to take over. The team is full of quick, dangerous athletes, and Hawthorne has some of the best skills of the lot.

Watch Out For … Hawthorne. If he's really the main return man, he has to show he can add more pop after such a disappointing year from Jarred Fayson. Arrelious Benn averaged 26.5 yards per kickoff return and the team still finished 105th in the nation in kickoff return yards.
Strength: Santella. It would've been unthinkable at this time last year that the punting game would be the strength of the Illinois special teams, but Santella improved enough to make this a major plus. He showed more pop to his shots and did a great job of pinning teams deep.
Weakness: The return game. HELP! Illinois finished last in the Big Ten, and 114th in the nation, averaging 4.17 yards per try, while the team averaged 19.32 yards per kickoff return.
Outlook: A major failing in the Zook era, the Illinois special teams have been a problem. While there was some overall improvement last year, the coverage teams have been spotty and the return game was a disaster. If Dimke is consistent and Santella keeps on improving, the kicking game might really be a positive, while the return game can't be worse.
Unit Rating: 5.5

- 2010 Illinois Preview | 2010 Illinois Offense
- 2010 Illinois Defense | 2010 Illinois Depth Chart
- Illinois Previews  2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006