Big Ten Breakdown: Illinois Illini, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
2010 scoring defense: 23.5 PPG (fifth in the conference), total defense: 351.3 YPG (fifth), rushing defense: 3.92 YPC (fifth), passing efficiency allowed: 127.56 (fifth).
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.8.
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fifth (2007 and 2010).
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11th (2009).
Returning starters: DT Akeem Spence, BAN Michael Buchanan, LB Ian Thomas, CB Justin Green, CB Terry Hawthorne, DB Tavon Wilson, FS Trulon Henry.
Open positions: DE, DT, LB.
One key element of Illinois' 2010 football season was staff turnover. The reason for this was because Ron Zook cleaned house after the disastrous 2009 season.
His co-defensive coordinators in 2009 were Dan Disch and Curt Mallory. They were subsequently demoted and Vic Koenning was hired in their place. Mallory has since gone to Akron and is now on the Michigan staff, while Disch left the Illini in February and has become the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss.
But Koenning is still in Illinois.
However, in some fairness, the 2009 defense only had five returning starters, and one of those starters—Martez Wilson—was injured and lost early in the season.
By comparison, last season's group had a ton of returning experience as well as a healthy Wilson.
So, how much of a role did Koenning specifically play in turning the Illini defense around? It's difficult to say, but given how much Illinois lost in the front seven this season, we'll know by the end of 2011.
Koenning runs a 4-3 defense, but the four up front consist of a defensive end, two defensive tackles and a bandit. The bandit is a defensive end/linebacker hybrid. He lines up in a two or three-point stance, and while he is more likely to attack the line, ala a traditional lineman, he does have linebacker-like responsibilities.
Koenning wants very busy linebackers, and is moderately aggressive where it concerns blitzing.
Illinois will have a big, fat void in the middle of their line with the departure of Corey Liuget. Liuget was only the third Illini defensive lineman drafted since 1996, when Simeon Rice was taken third overall. Complicating that loss, Illinois also graduated two-year starter Clay Nurse.
The two returning starters are sophomore Akeem Spence at defensive tackle and junior Michael Buchanan at bandit.
Given that Spence was only a redshirt freshman in 2010, he had a quality season and can expect to improve. At 305 lbs., he could eventually be as good as Liuget, but it will probably take another year or two of development.
Meanwhile, Buchanan was also solid last season and had arguably his strongest game of the year against Baylor in the bowl. With two sacks last season, Buchanan is the top returning pass rusher on the Illini.
The other starting line positions are likely to be filled out by junior Whitney Mercilus at defensive end and senior Craig Wilson at tackle.
Mercilus started two games last season at end, when Buchanan was suspended and Clay Nurse moved to bandit. Mercilus also got a good amount of playing time in the bowl and had an impressive showing.
Meanwhile, Wilson is new to the defensive side of the ball, having been an offensive lineman through the 2010 season. At 320 lbs., he's got the size to plug up the middle. The question is, is Wilson a prodigy or is his move a sign of a lack of any other options?
Right now, the most likely backups at defensive tackle are redshirt freshmen Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma. Also, senior Wisdom Onyegbule might get some playing time if he steps up.
There is established depth at the end and bandit position with junior Glenn Foster as backup end and junior Justin Staples at bandit. Foster has played a valuable backup role throughout his career and Staples started three games last season.
Lastly, sophomore Tim Kynard could push for playing time.
There is potential on this line, especially in Akeem Spence. However, I take it as a bad sign that an offensive tackle switched to defense and moved right into a starting spot.
Martez Wilson is gone. Nate Bussey is gone. Both were drafted with Wilson going early in the third round. You have to go back to Danny Clark in 2000 to find the last Illinois linebacker taken in the NFL draft (though J. Lemen is proof that the draft is not the ultimate judge of collegiate success).
The only experienced linebacker remaining is senior Ian Thomas, who will be a three-year starter.
A host of other players will compete for the other two starting positions. Most notable among the competitors are junior Ashante Williams; sophomores Jonathan Brown and Brandon Denmark; and redshirt freshmen Houston Bates and Earnest Thomas.
Williams is the most experienced of the bunch, though his experience has come in the defensive backfield. He made the move to strong side linebacker following the 2010 season. Currently listed at 205 lbs., he is a bit small for linebacker; especially strong side linebacker where he will be expected to cover the tight end.
Certainly, converted safeties can do very well as linebackers. After all, Ian Thomas is a converted safety. It is just that Williams is small and has only switched positions recently.
Denmark saw spot time last season, while Brown saw a lot of playing time as a true freshman. He had the most tackles of any non-starting linebacker on the team.
Finally, Earnest Thomas is another converted safety while Bates came to Illinois over an offer from LSU. He is not terribly fast and is very big; and projects more as a bandit or even defensive end than straight-up linebacker.
As of now, Brown is a likely starter with Williams also grabbing a spot, though perhaps Denmark or Bates could come in on obvious running downs.
As with the D-line there is potential here, especially with Brown. Moreover, while Thomas is not Martez Wilson, he is a solid foundation for the linebacking corps.
Still, the departure of Wilson and Bussey leave substantial holes.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 11
For all the holes and depth issues in the Illinois front seven, the secondary is supersaturated, which, perhaps, accounts for two quality safeties moving to linebacker.
First of all, the Illini graduated one starter in cornerback Travon Bellamy. However, Bellamy was replaced in the bowl game by junior Terry Hawthorne, who lost much of 2010 due to injuries.
Hawthorne has arguably the most upside of any cornerback in the Big Ten, and he is likely to prove it this season if he can stay healthy.
Meanwhile, the other cornerback will likely be manned by senior Tavon Wilson. Wilson started all 13 games last season at strong safety. However, the return of Hawthorne and junior Suppo Sani warrant the move.
As for Sani, he missed all of last season with an injury. He likely would have been the starting strong safety, which is the role he will assume this season.
At free safety, senior Trulon Henry will be the returning starter.
This leaves returning starter Justin Green out of the picture. He is a junior that started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Nonetheless, it is unlikely he will beat out either Hawthorne or Wilson. In effect, Green gives the Illini three quality corners for nickel packages.
On top of those players, sophomore Steve Hull and junior Patrick Nixon-Youman got a lot of playing time last season and would probably start for half of the teams in the Big Ten. However, in Illinois' secondary, they will be spot players.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: One
Special Teams Specialists
As with the other losses on Illinois, the graduation of All-Big Ten punter Anthony Santella stings. He averaged 44.78 yards-per-punt, which was second in the conference. He will be missed.
Right now, the Illini are likely to start true freshman Justin DuVernois in Santella's place. As a true freshman DuVernois is something of a wild card. He may be great. He may not. Either way, he is likely to shank a few before the year is out.
On the other hand, the kicker position is in solid hands with second team All-Conference kicker Derek Dimke handling place kicking duties. Heading into his senior season, Dimke has a career field goal percentage of 85.3 and has made all 55 of his extra point attempts. Moreover, he led the Big Ten in touchbacks with 22.
Every Illini that fielded a kickoff will return next season. The problem is they didn't do so well, coming in second-to-last in the conference. The most likely starters next season will be receiver Darius Millines, running back Troy Pollard and cornerback Terry Hawthorne.
The situation is much the same at punt returner, as the primary return man—defensive back Jack Ramsey—is back, but the Illini ranked dead last in the conference in punt return average by more than two full yards.
Along with Ramsey, Hawthorne will compete for the job.
Overall, Illinois has a very good kicker. Everything else is an unknown.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Eight
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Purdue Boilermakers.
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