If it weren’t for a good pass defense the 2012 version of the Illini may have well give up an average of 40 points a game and I’m not joking. This team had two NFL draft picks starting on the line and still couldn’t generate a pass rush to save their lives (21 sacks to rank 10th in conference).
The good news could be that there are few returning starters amongst this group and therefore a virtual clean slate. It’s up to guys like Jonathan Brown and last season’s breakout player, Mason Monheim, to lead the way and change the course of direction for a sinking ship on this side of the ball.
So, what does 2013 hold for the Illini defense? Let’s take a look at just that, shall we?
Yes, Illinois loses 2 NFL Draft picks off the D-Line last season, but is that really that big of a deal? After all, we did tell you yesterday how AWFUL this defense was. So, if it was that bad with 2 NFL Draft picks on it, could it really be that big of a deal?
Perhaps it is best to just restart and rethink things on the D-Line and just about everywhere else on that side of the ball. That’s where the good news could come in for 2013 as only one starter from a season ago is on board and that’s defensive end Tim Kynard, a senior, who had all of 18 tackles and 1 sack last year. Kynard is more of a hybrid type of end, but he needs FAR MORE production if he’s going to help this team in any significant way.
Opposite of Kynard is likely junior Houston Bates, who was a linebacker in a previous incarnation of this defense. Bates will occupy the Leo position in Tim Banks’ system – meaning he’ll be expected to come off the edge as a purer pass rusher than Kynard.
Up the middle the Illini will be looking for something explosive to help change the fortunes of this defense. One of the best battles to watch in camp is likely to be that between junior Jake Howe and redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams at the nose tackle position. Williams appears to have the bigger upside of the two, with a more athletic build, yet stout enough at nearly 300lbs. to stand up the middle of the O-Line’s across from him. Howe won’t go away easy as he brings an impressive drive to the table and has paid his dues on special teams over the past few years.
The other tackle spot should go to junior Austin Teitsma, who added 25lbs. this offseason. He is perhaps the most productive returning lineman the Illini have from last year, where he made 15 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss.
Clearly this defense is hoping speed and athleticism up front will do the trick it didn’t do last year, which was stop the run and make plays in the offensive backfield. This could be a group that kills this team or puts it together in camp and surprises everyone – they have the talent in them, but the production on the field so far has been lacking – so let’s just wait and see who shows up.
This should be the group that excites Illini fans the most and that’s because it has the most potential to be great. Mason Monheim, a sophomore, and Jonathan Brown, a senior could be just the dynamic pairing that helps turn this lackluster defense into something respectable.
Problem is, Brown can’t seem to stay healthy. Brown finished with just 59 tackles in 2012 after racking up an impressive 108 tackles the season before. If the version of Brown that wasn’t banged up comes back in 2013 this team has it’s star.
Monheim was a very big bright spot on a defense that sucked badly last season, starting from the 3rd week on. He was able to record a nice total of 86 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss – not bad for a freshman, huh? He is the type of middle linebacker you want in a 4-3 defense as he has a great nose for the football and makes plays happen. He’s not the fastest guy out there, but his motor never stops and that masks his lack of top end speed.
The third part of the equation in the linebacker group should be sophomore Eric Finney. He’ll be replacing the Illini’s 2nd leading tackler a season ago, but don’t be fooled…. That’s more of a byproduct of the position, Star, than anything else. You’re expected to make plays in the running and passing game as a more hybrid linebacker/safety type.
One guy to really watch for is redshirt freshman T.J. Neal. He is stuck behind Monheim right now in the middle, but with durability issues for Brown expect him to find the field in some way, shape, or form – he’s just got too much talent to not see the field at some point in time.
This was the least of the Illini’s problems, which is interesting considering they had so many issues getting pressure on opposing QB’s. Too bad only one of the four starters is back in strong safety Earnest Thomas. The junior will have to step up as a leader on and off the field for what is expected to be a young group with a lot of potential.
The corner spots are a bit of an unknown but expect names like sophomores V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence to get cracks at the starting spot first. However, the real name to watch out of this group is true freshman Darius Mosely. Coach Tim Beckman believes highly in the redshirt everyone philosophy, however need and ability may match up here and don’t be surprised if you see him starting by the end of the year, let alone making contributions from the get-go.
Who starts opposite of Thomas at safety? We’ll take a Florida native for $500 Alex. No seriously, look for the winner of a battle at free safety to be from the FLA. The battle is between Taylor Barton and Nick North (both underclassmen) and it may come down to who can make more plays of the big variety. Barton is more of the ball-hawking type and North has a reputation as a big hitter, so there couldn’t be a clearer difference between the two.
Questions to Answer in Camp:
Will there be any pass rush? Illinois didn’t get much last season and what they have up front may not get it done again. However, it won’t be for a lack of trying as it appears the ends will be guys perfectly built to rush the passer.
Can this team create more turnovers? This group forced all of 18 turnovers last season to rank them in a tie for 10th in the Big Ten. That won’t cut it if they want to be a bowl team in 2013 because the offense is bound to make some mistakes thanks to a new system in place and a more aggressive nature with a lot of new faces in new places.