No coach in the Big Ten understands the adage that “defense wins championships” more than new Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith. He got the Chicago Bears of the NFL to the Super Bowl on the strength of outstanding defense.
His challenge in year one in Champaign is going to be finding a way to turn a mediocre-at-best defense in to a championship one.
Should he get this group of Tim Beckman recruits to flip a switch and change old bad habits, this team could be the surprise of the Big Ten in 2016. But, will that happen in such a short period of time?
Let’s take a look at the Illini defense for 2016.
One of the best-kept secrets of the 2015 Big Ten season was just how much the Illinois Fighting Illini defense improved. A lot of that improvement can be attributed to the work done up front and the emergence of arguably the best defensive lineman in the B1G for 2016 — Dawuane Smoot.
Last season, Smoot burst on to the scene with 15.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks last season and was ranked No. 21 in our preseason Top 25 Big Ten players list. He isn’t the only player worth noting up front heading in to the 2016 season, that’s because there is a nice edge rusher on the other side of him in Carroll Phillips.
A senior-laden defensive line continues in the middle, as two seniors — Jarrod Clements and Rob Bain — are back to make life difficult for opposing run games. Clement, whose nickname is Chunky, had 11.5 tackles for loss in 12 games played (10 starts) and is on the Senior Bowl watch list heading in to this season. Bain had 6.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks, while also being a special teams standout with two blocked kicks in 11 starts.
Overall, this group is long on experience in the starting group but there is nothing in terms of proven talent behind them. Not a single defensive lineman who is a senior in 2016 recorded a single sack in 2015 and only nine total players did that last season alone.
That has to be improved and the coaching staff is hoping to have depth with sophomore end Henry McGrew and tackles Jamal Milan and Tito Odenigbo, a redshirt freshman and sophomore respectively.
Things begin and end with a graduate transfer for the Illini linebacker group. With Smith’s hire of his old Tampa Bay Buccaneer player, Hardy Nickerson, as his linebackers coach a perfect opportunity to reunite father and son existed. That’s exactly what happened with Hardy Nickerson Jr. joining the Illini as a graduate transfer after a good career at Cal previously.
Nickerson will not only be the leader of this group, but of the defense as a whole. It may be a lot to put on someone brand new to the team, but Nickerson’s had a good career on the field. He comes to the Illini having racked up.
Joining him as likely starters to open the season are junior James Crawford and sophomore Tre Watson. Both of them appeared in 12 games, with Crawford recording 4.0 tackles for loss and Watson making 1.0 sacks in his first year in the program.
Given the youth at this position, having a player like Nickerson in the fold is only going to help this younger players grow quicker.
What was once a glaring weakness of the Illini defense became a strength in 2015, with the team finishing fifth in the Big Ten in passing defense. Add in a coach who specializes in making secondaries great and Illinois could have a very difficult secondary to play against in 2016.
A large part of the reason for that is the return of free safety Taylor Barton for his final season in Champaign. He led the team in interceptions last season with four of them. It also didn’t hurt that he finished fourth on the team in tackles as well.
Opposite of him at safety will be sophomore Julian Hylton, who saw limited action in 11 games last season and could be a star with this new system. Hylton winning the starting job surprised a lot of outsiders, but clearly took the coaching staff by storm in fall camp thanks to his unreal athletic ability.
The other half of the equation in the secondary — cornerback — will be occupied by senior Darius Mosely and junior Jalen Dunlap. Ironically, neither of these two were expected to be starters coming in to the offseason but earned their way up the depth chart. They also didn’t record a single interception last season, but beat out the likes of Cameron Watkins and Chris James for the first start of the season.
Our Projected Starters
DE: Dawaune Smoot, Sr.
DT: Rob Bain, Sr.
DT: Chunky Clements, Sr.
DE: Carroll Phillips, Sr.
OLB: James Crawford, Jr.
MLB: Hardy Nickerson Jr., Sr.
OLB: Tre Watson, So.
CB: Darius Mosley, Sr.
SS: Julian Hylton, So.
FS: Taylor Barton, Sr.
CB: Jalen Dunlap, Jr.