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.
Danny Clark is ranked 7th in Illini history with 381 tackles.
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The following are five guys who didn't quite make the top 10 but are worthy of note.
Scott Davis (1983-1987)
Davis was an Honorable Mention All-American and first team All-Big Ten in 1987 when he recorded 10 sacks. That stat ranks fourth all time in Illinois history for sacks in a season.
He is also second in Illini history with 23 career sacks and is tied for seventh all-time with 35 tackles for loss. Davis was drafted 25th overall by the LA Raiders in the 1988 NFL draft.
Danny Clark (1996-1999)
Clark started 44 of 45 games during his time in Champaign and was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten three times. He currently ranks seventh all-time in Illini history with 381 tackles and is tied for seventh in tackles for loss with Scott Davis at 35.
He was drafted in the seventh round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000.
Fred Wakefield (1997-2000)
Wakefield currently ranks third all-time in Illinois history with 42 tackles for loss, as well as third all-time with 21 quarterback sacks.
He was picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2001 by the Arizona Cardinals and went on to play six seasons with them and another with the Oakland Raiders.
Kelvin Hayden (2003-2004)
Hayden was the team's leading receiver as a wideout in 2003 before transitioning to cornerback during his senior season and starting all 11 games there.
He was tied for first in the Big Ten in 2004 with four interceptions. He was drafted in the second round by the Indianapolis Colts in 2005.
Corey Liuget (2008-2010)
Liuget was named to the All-American team by two different publications in 2010 and was also named first team All-Big Ten.
He left Illinois after his junior year and was drafted 18th overall by the San Diego Chargers.
10. Vontae Davis (2006-2008)
Davis was an All-American during his junior year of 2008 and was also a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe award that year, which goes to the nation's top defensive back.
He was also a semi-finalist for the same award in 2007 and was the only sophomore on the list.
Davis was named to the All-Big Ten team in each of his three seasons in Champaign before leaving early for the NFL.
He currently ranks eighth in Illini history with 22 career passes broken up and was selected 25th overall in the 2009 NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins.
9. Mel Agee (1987-1990)
Agee, who passed away in 2008, will always be remembered as one of the better defensive lineman in Illini history.
He was a two-time first team All-Big Ten selection in 1989 and 1990, as well as an honorable mention All-American in 1990.
Agee, along with fellow lineman Moe Gardner and linebacker Darrick Brownlow, helped form an impressive Illini defense during the late 1980s.
He is tied for seventh all-time in Illinois history with 15 sacks and was drafted in the sixth round of the 1991 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
Agee played five seasons in the NFL with the Colts and Atlanta Falcons.
8. J Leman (2004-2007)
As middle linebacker, Leman was the leader of the Illini defense during the Rose Bowl season in 2007-08.
He was a consensus All-American in 2007 and was also named first team All-Big Ten in 2006 and 2007.
Leman finished his Illini career with 407 tackles, which is good for sixth all-time in Illinois history.
His 152 tackles during his junior year led the Big Ten and are the sixth most in a single season by an Illini player.
In addition, he is fifth all-time in Illini history with 38.5 tackles for loss.
Leman was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Minnesota Vikings in 2008 and is now a member of the Oakland Raiders.
7. Eugene Wilson (1999-2002)
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Wilson is one of the better defensive backs to ever wear the orange and blue. He was also an integral part of the defense for the Illini team that reached the Sugar Bowl in 2002.
Wilson was a three-year starter on defense and was an All-Big Ten selection each of those seasons. He was also named to the All-American team as a junior.
He is the all-time leader in Illini history with 60 passes broken up—30 during his junior year alone, which led the entire NCAA.
Wilson is also tied for sixth in Illinois history with 11 career interceptions, including six during his junior year, which ranks as the highest single season total over the last 38 years.
He was drafted in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots and has played eight seasons in the league, winning two Super Bowls with the Patriots.
6. John Holecek (1990-1994)
Holecek was part of a group of outstanding linebackers that played for Illinois in the early 1990s, and he certainly made a name for himself.
He is fifth in Illinois history with 436 career tackles but was often overshadowed during his collegiate career.
He played alongside Dana Howard, Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy.
Holecek was a two-time Honorable Mention All-American who was drafted in the fifth round by the Buffalo Bills in the 1995 NFL Draft. He went on to play eight seasons in the league for the Bills, Chargers, and Falcons.
5. Darrick Brownlow (1987-1990)
Brownlow played linebacker for the Illini during the late 1980s and was one of the better ones to put on an Illinois uniform.
He teamed with Moe Gardner and Mel Agee on defense to help lead the Illini to three straight bowl games from 1988-1990.
Brownlow was a three-time All-American and three-time first team All-Big Ten selection during his playing days. He is third all-time in Illinois history with 483 tackles and holds the third and fourth spots in Illini history for most tackles in a season.
He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the fifth round of the 1991 NFL draft and went on to play six seasons in the league for the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Redskins.
4. Moe Gardner (1987-1990)
Gardner was a two-time consensus All-American at Illinois and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in both 1989 and 1990.
As a tackle, Gardner not only plugged the middle for the Illini defense, but he could get to the quarterback.
He is second all-time in Illinois history with 57 tackles for loss and tied for fifth all-time with 18 quarterback sacks.
Gardner was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round of the 1991 NFL draft and played six seasons in the NFL, all for Atlanta.
3. Dana Howard (1990-1994)
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Howard was a stud during his time at Illinois, period.
He is the all-time leading tackler in Illinois history with 595 tackles and was a two-time consensus All-American.
In addition, he took home the coveted Butkus Award during his senior year in 1994.
As a four-year starter at linebacker, he led the Illini in tackles in all four of those seasons (1991-1994) and had at least 147 tackles in each of those seasons.
Howard was drafted in the fifth round of the 1995 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys but eventually signed with the St. Louis Rams.
He played only one year for the Rams and three games for the Bears the following season before moving on to play in NFL Europe.
2. Kevin Hardy (1992-1995)
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Hardy was an elite linebacker during his time at Illinois, but he flew under the radar early in his career because he played alongside the likes of Simeon Rice, Dana Howard and John Holecek.
However, by the time he was a senior in 1995, Hardy definitely wasn’t going unnoticed. He was a consensus All-American and took home the Butkus award that year, following Dana Howard from the year before.
Hardy is sixth in Illini history with 38 tackles for loss and is tied for fifth with 18 quarterback sacks.
In 1996, Hardy was drafted second overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars—one spot ahead of Illini teammate Simeon Rice—and went on to make the All-Rookie Team in his first NFL season.
He played nine seasons in the NFL for the Jaguars, Cowboys and Bengals and was a first team All-Pro in 1999.
1. Simeon Rice (1992-1995)
What else can you say about this guy? He was just a freak of nature.
Rice was 6'5" and 260 pounds and ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash.
Not normal by any means.
He technically played outside linebacker at Illinois but often lined up as an end—his eventual position in the NFL—and just wreaked complete havoc on the field.
He holds the Illini and Big Ten records for career sacks with 44.5, as well as the Illinois record for sacks in a season with 16, which he set as a junior in 1994. He also holds the Illinois record for tackles for loss with 69.
Rice was a two-time All-American at Illinois and was the third overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 1996.
He was the AP NFL Rookie of the Year and went on to record 122 sacks in his 12-year NFL career, good for 12th all time. He was also the second fastest player to reach 100 sacks, behind only Reggie White.
Rice’s coach at Illinois, Lou Tepper, once said the following about him: “It's rare that a defensive player can be like a Red Grange or a Gale Sayers, can take on that kind of dimension, but he's the Red Grange of defense.”
I think that about sums it up.