The 90 Illini #20: Owen Carney
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Any time a player is lower on this list than the year before, that's probably a bad sign. Well, not a "bad sign" but more a signal that their previous season didn't meet expectations. I think that can be said about Owen Carney and 2019. He had started eight games in 2018. I had him at #17 on my list last year, was ready for a big junior season, and then he lost his starting spot in camp and never regained it. From eight starts as a sophomore to 0 as a junior.
Had Wole Betiku returned for his senior season, I'm guessing Carney would have been much lower on this list because Betiku would have been the starter again. But he left for the draft (undrafted, signed with the Giants as a UDFA, cut in camp), so now the job is Carney's. That bumps him up to #20 on my list of Most Important Illini. Carney having the 2019 season we all expected (just one year late) could be a huge development for this defense. Maybe the best surprise we could receive.
20. Owen Carney
Uniform number: 99
Year in school: Senior (2 years to play 1; with the Covid rule, technically 3 years to play 2)
Height: 6'-3" -- Weight: 260 lbs.
Hometown: Miami, Florida
High School: Miami Central HS
Five best offers: LSU, Georgia, Florida State, Miami, Tennessee
Tom Cruise rating:
2019 statistics: Played in all 13 games - 15 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFL's.
He was my highest-rated recruit in 2017. Georgia? LSU? Florida State? Nope - Illinois. He had to play right away as a freshman, and then he was pushed into a starting role (opposite Bobby Roundtree) in 2018, and after starting eight games I was expecting his junior year to be his breakout moment... and he didn't start a single game. When Wole Betiku got hurt, they moved Jamal Woods from DT to DE instead of giving the job to Carney. So what was once (in my mind) "the next great Illinois defensive end" became "Carney isn't even starting NOW?"
Now, part of that goes back to the thing I always preach about age: some players just aren't there until years four and five. So it could very well be that his struggles over the years were based in "body not there yet" and now that he's reached his fourth year, he's there. Or, he could also lose his starting spot to redshirt freshman Keith Randolph Jr. and that's that.
I'll say it again: Carney having a year four similar to Ayo Shogbonyo's year four last year would be the single best thing that could happen to this defense. Shogbonyo's name was known by maybe 10% of the fanbase before last season. When he started the Akron game, I think a lot of Illini fans were "who is #52?". And then, at times, Shogbonyo was our best defensive lineman.
He's gone now (graduated after four seasons and decided not to continue with football), and Betiku unfortunately declared early, so now we turn to Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney and say "OK gentlemen - we need year-four breakouts from you two like Pat Fitzgerald needs to stop saying 'go cats'". Nothing would make me happier.