Illinois Football: The Top 10 Defensive Players of the Past 25 Years

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Illinois Football: The Top 10 Defensive Players of the Past 25 Years
Hardy (51), Howard (40), Rice (97) and Holecek (52) made Illinois "Linebacker U" in the early 90's.

In recent years, Illinois football hasn’t exactly been what one would call a defensive juggernaut—or for that matter an offensive juggernaut.

However, the focus here is defense and this year’s Illini defense is eliciting memories of some of the better Illinois defenses of the past. They are putting pressure on the quarterback, causing turnovers and flying to the ball.

The difference this season is they are doing it with mostly unknown guys instead of a group of All-Americans.

At least to this point.

That being said, Illinois has definitely had its share of All-Americans on the defensive side of the ball and it all started with the greatest linebacker in college football history, Dick Butkus.

Butkus played for the Illini in the early 1960s and was a two-time All-American who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965.

For the Bears, he became an eventual Hall of Famer. 

Since 1985, he has also been the namesake of the award given to the top collegiate linebacker each season, so it’s fair to say Butkus has a prominent place in football history, both college and professional.

Though Illinois has never had another player quite like Butkus since he left Champaign over 45 years ago, they’ve had some come close. 

During the early 1990s, the Illini had some dominant defenses led by some of the best linebackers in college football, all of whom are on this list. 

That group gave Illinois the moniker of “Linebacker U” and rightfully so, as they were about as dominant as any group in recent memory.

Butkus’s Illinois No. 50 jersey was retired by the school in 1986 and in honor of the 25 years it has been since the event took place, I wanted to take a look at what I feel have been the top 10 defensive players during that time for the Illini.

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