Position Confidence - The Defense
I did that thing I do where I say "defense tomorrow" and now it's 11:14 and while it's technically still "tomorrow" I only have 46 minutes to write this post if I want to publish it "tomorrow". So right to it. After a few days watching spring practices, here's my confidence in each position based on the roster right now. Offense yesterday, defense today (er, tomorrow).
Defensive Ends: 5
Totally unfair opinion alert: On Saturday I had this thought where this felt like the spring of 2011. That spring, I remember writing about how Whitney Mercilus was winning every single position drill. One-on-ones, Mercilus dominated. Blocking sled drills, Mercilus looked better than every other defensive end on the roster. I couched the opinion at the time, saying how it was way early and not to get too excited because Mercilus had one sack in two years before that spring, but it proved to be a thing. Mercilus would go on to have one of the best Illini individual seasons ever (tied Simeon Rice's single season Illini sack record, forced NINE FUMBLES, which is the second highest total in NCAA history).
Why unfair? Because seeing Bobby Roundtree go through certain drills and then seeing everyone else go through the same drills makes me think of spring 2011 Mercilus. Roundtree is just so much further along than everyone else. He got off to a slow start last season but in the end finished 6th in the Big Ten in sacks (he was fifth at the end of the year but a postseason film review took away one of his sacks). I'm not saying "Roundtree is going to have a Mercilus-like All American season and then declare early for the NFL draft", but I might be saying "Roundtree is going to have a first-team All Big Ten season and then seriously consider the NFL draft".
That's the good news. The bad news: I didn't really see anyone else ready to play defensive end in the Big Ten. Now, that's mostly because players are rehabbing injuries/offseason surgeries. Owen Carney isn't out there, Isaiah Gay isn't out there, not even redshirt freshman Ezekiel Holmes is out there. It's Roundtree, Lere Oladipo, Ayo Shogbonyo, and then tight end Brandon Jones lining up at DE just so they'll have four guys at practice. Oladipo at DE I like (and I hope he stays there since we're much deeper at DT). Shogbonyo's body now looks the part of a DE. But both still have a long way to go.
So, given some of those question marks - once Gay and Carney return, there are still question marks, especially the question mark preceded by the words "is there a single defensive end on this roster who can stop the run?" - I have to go with a 5 here.
Defensive Tackle: 7
I feel much better about defensive tackle. Both from a "there's depth here" perspective and a "there are several players ready to put together a breakout season" perspective. Defensive end has one star and a ton of question marks, especially against the run. Defensive tackle has no real stars but a ton of depth and some promising run-stuffers (or at least running-lane disrupters).
Let's put it this way. Jamal Woods was playing DT, and I think he stays there. And even though Lere Oladipo was at defensive end, that might be because of the injuries and he might move back to DT. Which means we have a... four-deep of players who might play?
(I just completely nodded off while typing that four-deep. Zero chance I get this post finished tonight before I fall asleep.)
I know it's strange to give the defensive tackles a 7 during the season immediately following perhaps the worst Illini defense of all time, but that's how I feel about this group. The DT's seem primed for a leap. You have expereienced seniors (Milan, Oliver, and Jackson), you have two 4-star second-year players (Avery and Brown), you have two intriguing redshirt sophomores (Oladipo and Pate), and you have the guy who might have played the best out of any of them prior to being lost for the season to injury after 3.5 games (Woods).
With that many options, it feels like a position primed for a leap.
(By the way, it's tomorrow now and I'm skipping lunch to finish this. I could skip a lunch or two.)
Quick, name the best Illini linebacker the last 10 years.
(It's Jonathan Brown and I don't think it can be debated.)
This is probably where I'm most concerned on the defense. This and defensive end depth (OK, and maybe cornerback depth and backup safeties but other than that Mrs Lincoln we're in good shape). Again, we're going off what I watched at practice, and with Jake Hansen in a green (no-contact) jersey, I'm even more concerned.
Hansen is clearly the #1 guy, and Dele Harding is clearly the #2 guy. If the two linebackers who Bill Cubit found on the decommitment list back in 2016 (Hansen decommitted from Iowa State, Harding decommitted from Michigan) can put it together, we'll be fine. They're the key.
If not, we turn to Milo Eifler (who, I'll be honest, made a few "hey Eifler where's the tight end oh crap that's right he's split out wide which means you were supposed to be split out wide which means he just made a 27-yard catch" mistakes). Eifler flamed out at Washington and transferred to Illinois (Hardy Nickerson was the coach who got him to try football in high school, so that was the connection). Eifler certainly looks the part (fills out a linebacker uniform better than anyone we've had in a long time and brings some speed, too), but the question remains whether he can make all the reads.
And behind Eifler it's a hodgepodge of second-year linebackers (Khalan Tolson, Jacob Hollins) walkons, and, uh, defensive backs practicing with the linebackers (I won't mention names just yet in case Lovie is mixing up some hidden schemes). So the whole thing is kind of a mess.
Oh, and the coach who is tasked with sorting it all out is in his first year coaching a position. So yeah, maybe 4 is too high. This should be a 3. I'm going to go change it. I mean, you had no idea this was a 4 in the first place, so, uh, I'll just move on.
If there was depth here - and depth arrives in the form of top-100 recruit Marquez Beason this summer - then this number would be higher. But right now it's a 6 because there are two very solid starters and then a complete toss-up. Cam Watkins would help there, but Cam Watkins transferred to join his guy Ke'Shawn Vaughn at Vanderbilt.
So it's two starters I completely trust (Nate Hobbs and Jartavius Martin) and then, at this point, draw a name out of a hat. That earns a 6.
And if we break down that six with, like sub-scores for each player, it would look like this:
Nate Hobbs: 9
Quan Martin: 8
Dylan Wyatt: 3.5
Ron Hardge: 3.5
Nick Walker: 3
Nolan Bernat: 2.5
To feel good about the position, one of those guys below needs to rocket past 5. And one of the incoming freshmen (Beason or Joseph Thompson) needs to arrive above a 5. Can't go into the season with just two guys you can count on.
This was the most pleasant surprise (for me). When the first string defense was on the field, I felt very confident in the entire secondary. Hobbs and Martin at corner and then a rotation of three safeties: Tony Adams, Stanley Green, and Sydney Brown. Each time I watched 11 on 11, as a unit, the secondary stood out as the best unit on the field. Sydney Brown, in particular, was flying to the ball.
But, like most every other defensive position, I didn't see much depth behind the starters. Because there are three trustworthy guys instead of the two at corner, I'm giving safeties a 7 and corners a 6, but still, I want to go into a season with five solid names at each position. Right now, there are two at corner (with hopefully a third arriving this summer) and three at safety. Getting there, but not there yet.
The fourth guy at safety very clearly needs to be Kerby Joseph, but I'm not sure he's there yet. Which is fine - he'll be a true sophomore - but as I said above under cornerbacks, if this defense is going to improve, depth has to improve, which means we need very solid backups right on the heels of the starters. I like Joseph a lot, but he's still young and just not there yet. But he needs to be. But he isn't. Yet.
The other options at safety are all the walkon variety. One of those walkons - Michael Marchese - played a ton last season, some good (the interception in the Western Illinois game), some bad (the blown coverage on USF's game-winning touchdown). He's certainly in the hunt for a lot of playing time again.
So if I can give a combo score to the defensive backfield, it's a 6.5. Starters are pushing up towards 8 and 9. Bench is weak at this point and gets a 4 or 5. This needs to be a unit that takes a massive step forward.
I might eat these words, but given what I saw during two kicking competitions on Friday and Saturday, I feel good about finding a solid Chase McLaughlin replacement at kicker. Both junior James McCourt and redshirt-freshman Caleb Griffin kicked it well.
Let me go back to my Twitter and pull up the stats from each. During "field goal" drill, the point isn't exactly the kicking, alhtough that's part of it. Bob Ligashesky is working with both the lines on FG protection/FG block. So sometimes, they'll re-do a kick because the kicker missed it and other times they'll re-do a kick because the outside blocker put his left foot in the wrong spot. All of that to say - it's not like the kickers will kick the same number of kicks during these drills.
Anyway, here's what I saw on Friday:
+ McCourt 5-6 (missed one kick from 43, they made him repeat it, he made it.
+ Griffin 5-6 (missed one kick from 32, they made him repeate it, he made it.
On Saturday, Griffin got the short kicks and McCourt got the long kicks:
+ McCourt 3-5 (good from 40, 42, and 43, missed from 41 twice).
+ Griffin 4-4 (good from 35 twice, good from 37 twice)
Those are solid numbers. And it's good pressure, too - the whole practice stops and everyone's eyes are on the kicker. Sure, the kickers can make kicks off to the side while no one is watching, but when there's a live competition, the pressure is on. A combined 17-21 over two days is a really solid performance. Even if the chosen starter falters in September, feels like there will be a solid backup to replace him.
Punter? We're fine. Blake Hayes (now a junior) is one of the best in the business.
Longsnapper? We're fine. Ethan Tabel (now a junior) is one of the best in the business.