The Returnees - Defense

Jan 18, 2023

Classes started yesterday. The Transfer Portal closes today. Monday was the final day to declare for the NFL Draft. So mid-January is when we can really start to look at next season. To know where the new players fit in, you need to know who is coming back, and we now know who is coming back.

I say "nearly everyone" because, as expected, Devon Witherspoon and Chase Brown declared for the draft. Other players were out of eligibility and went out the door, but those two could have both used a Covid year and returned. They chose to enter the draft instead.

Which meant that this down period the last few weeks - from the end of the bowl game to the start of the second semester yesterday - was all about learning who would return. Most were focused on NFL Draft decisions, but there were also Covid year decisions to be made. A few paragraphs about that:

Johnny Newton was a third-year sophomore this season (because 2020 was the Covid season and his participation that season didn't count towards his eligibility). He enters 2023 as a junior, so he could technically return in 2024 as well (he won't). So his decision was the typical NFL Draft decision. It's the same thing that happens at Alabama and Ohio State every year. You play three years and then make a decision on whether to return for a fourth season or declare for the draft.

But there were other decisions happening these last few weeks which were only partially draft related. Calvin Hart just announced his return yesterday so let's use him as our example. Hart redshirted at NC State in 2018 and then played in 2019 and 2020. He transferred to Illinois and played in 2021 (one game before a season-ending injury) and 2022. He still had a year of eligibility (because 2020 didn't count), but there was no guarantee he would use it. Some players - like Khalan Tolson last year - are simply done playing college ball and want to give the NFL a shot. "Either I'm ready or I'm not" is the mindset.

So while many were focused on Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph's decisions ("go into the draft this year or come back next year to improve my draft stock?"), there were also "is it time?" decisions happening. These kinds of decisions didn't happen in the past, but with that Covid bonus year everyone has available, a new category of "you know, I think I'm just done with college ball and ready to see if I can make it in the NFL" players emerged. Not every player will just max out their eligibility.

Calvin Hart will turn 24 in September as he plays his sixth college season. Which means if he can make it on an NFL roster next year, he'll turn 25 in the first month of his rookie season. That's when what I'll call "Kofi math" comes into play. Yes, Kofi had another year of eligibility. But Kofi also turned 23 this past September. If he had played this season at Illinois, he'd then be 24 during his rookie pro season. You only get so many years to play professionally.

So while everyone has been focused on the draft decisions for Newton and Randolph, I've been equally focused on Covid Year decisions. Do guys like Tarique Barnes and Isaiah Adams really want to still be playing college ball at age 23/24? Or are they ready to give professional football a shot (even if it's XFL or USFL)?

All of those decisions came down on the side of "I'll play one more year in Champaign." And that's really good news for us. You might have balked at someone like Jordyn Slaughter tweeting "I'm back" and thought "with only one year as a half-starter was he really going to turn pro?", but this is a different kind of "back." This is a bunch of players agreeing to go through the grind of college football for a sixth season.

OK, let's get to the returnees. I'd normally start with the offense when putting together a post like this, but the two big draft decisions on Monday were both on defense. So let's start with the defense.

Returning Starters

We'll start with the departures. I always list this defense as 12 "starters" - five on the line, two linebackers, five defensive backs - so of those 12, we are losing five: Calvin Avery (NG), Devon Witherspoon (CB), Quan Martin (Star), Sydney Brown (SS), and Kendall Smith (FS). The other seven return: Gabe Jacas (OLB), Keith Randolph (DL), Johnny Newton (DL), Seth Coleman (OLB), Calvin Hart (LB), Tarique Barnes (LB), and Taz Nicholson (CB).

If we look at the starters in the ReliaQuest Bowl (where Nicholson did not play due to injury and Brown & Witherspoon opted out), we likely know three of the replacements for those five departed starters: Tyler Strain (CB), Xavier Scott (Star), and Matt Bailey (either FS or SS).

So with all of these players announcing their return - Newton and Randolph eschewing the draft for one more year of college ball, Barnes and Hart choosing to use their Covid bonus year - we know a great deal about the 2023 defense. Seven returning starters. Three players who started the bowl game in replacement roles. 10 of the 11 names might already be known.

Before I get to the individual positions, please remember that this is a "Returnees" post. You might want to say "Robert don't you think Jojo Hayden has a chance to play as a true freshman?" but that's not this article. This aren't isn't even a depth chart article. This article is laying groundwork for talking about the incoming players. It is asking one question: of the players we saw on the field this past season, who is coming back? It's all pointing to the "incoming players" articles which are.. incoming.

Defensive Line & Outside Linebackers

NEARLY EVERYONE RETURNS. This is where it's going to be hard to contain my excitement. I've been writing this section in my head for the past 48 hours.

I combine DL and OLB here because the OLB's are more like defensive ends than anything else. I've chosen to call this a 5-1-5 defense, and the first five stands for five defensive linemen. OLB-DL-NG-DL-OLB.

And of those, we are only losing the NG (Calvin Avery). Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph announcing that they're returning = the biggest offseason "he's coming back!" announcements since... Brandon Lloyd in 2002? Like, if we made a list of most important returnees since Lloyd returned for 2002, it would be 1. Newton and 2. Randolph.

When our players have a chance to go, they just go. Spoon and Chase just did it, but there are so many other examples. Kerby Joseph, Nate Hobbs, Kendrick Green, Akeem Spence, Whitney Mercilus, Mikel Leshoure, and Corey Liuget all left with one year of eligibility remaining. Lloyd (mostly because he had missed the 2000 season and the NFL wanted to see another productive year) is the only one I can think of which fits the "could have gone, but returned" category in the last 20 years.

Here's where PFF had Newton on their Big Board:

73rd is mid-3rd Round. Here's what Over The Cap has for the 4-year contract that will go to the 73rd pick in the 2023 NFL Draft:

Total Contract Value: $5,741,578
Signing Bonus: $1,175,692

It's been 45 hours since Newton announced and I still don't think the fanbase understands how big it is. Yes, there's no guarantee that he would have been the 73rd pick, but that's the potential contract he turned down in order to chase a first or second round selection next year.

(Which, I should add, can be a smart business decision. I saw a mock draft yesterday that had Spoon going to the Patriots with the 14th pick. Estimated contract for the 14th pick in the 2023 draft: Total Contract Value - $17,595,112; Signing Bonus - $9,796,444. Now is when you rethink your stance on Witherspoon opting out of the bowl game.)

But it's not just Newton. I believe Keith Randolph would have been drafted had he entered the draft this year. He was 278th in the NFL Mock Draft Database at the first of the year (think Bracket Matrix for mock drafts - Spoon is currently 24th), and with a declaration and a Pro Day, I believe Randolph would have moved up into the later rounds. With compensatory picks there are 259 spots in this draft, so he began the new year right on the edge of being a draft pick.

Getting both of them back is huge. Just massive. I'm going to make up a number and say that it's worth 1.71 wins. Just from those two players.

And then add in Gabe Jacas (consensus Freshman All American) and Seth Coleman (honorable mention All Big Ten). Maybe we just look at the All Big Ten list. On the defensive line, the Illini return:

Johnny Newton (1st Team All Big Ten)
Keith Randolph (3rd Team All Big Ten)
Seth Coleman (Honorable Mention All Big Ten)
Gabe Jacas (Honorable Mention All Big Ten)

Actually, maybe that's the very best way to frame this. All Big Ten teams from this past season:

So let's total up the defensive lines. There are 12 players on the first, second, and third teams. And then on the honorable mention list, another 17 defensive linemen are named. 56 starting defensive linemen in the Big Ten, these would be the 29 "best" per the media.

Of the players that made the first, second, or third teams, six are headed to the NFL draft and six will return. The six who will return: Johnny Newton (Illinois), Joe Evans (Iowa), JT Tuimoloau (Ohio State), Keith Randolph (Illinois), Mike Hall (Ohio State), and PJ Mustipher (Penn State). Of the 17 honorable mention defensive linemen (which includes Jacas and Coleman), six were seniors and 11 will return. Jacas was the only freshman.

So that allows us to assemble the top Big Ten defensive lines for 2023, right? I think it does. Here's how it shakes out:

1. Illinois
Johnny Newton (1st team)
Keith Randolph (3rd team)
Seth Coleman (HM)
Gabe Jacas (HM, Freshman All American)

2. Ohio State
JT Tuimoloau (2nd team)
Mike Hall (3rd team)
Tyleik Williams (HM)

3. Penn State
PJ Mustipher (3rd team)
Adisa Isaac (HM)
Chop Robinson (HM)

4. Iowa
Joe Evans (2nd team)
Logan Lee (HM)

5. Michigan
Jaylen Harrell (HM)
Kris Jenkins (HM)

And then Michigan State, Minnesota, and Rutgers all have a single honorable mention defensive lineman returning.

So if you think I was just being Zany Robert with my tweet on Monday...

...I was not. There's math behind it. We have a 1st teamer returning, a 3rd teamer returning, and two honorable mentions returning (one of them a consensus freshman All American).

Top. Defensive line. In the Big Ten.

In the preseason team picture for best DL in the country.


(Still need to find a nose guard, though. Likely TeRah Edwards, the main backup all season. Calvin Avery got 407 snaps and TeRah Edwards got 185. So if it was a two-thirds, one-third thing this season, Edwards will go from getting one-third of the snaps to two-thirds of the snaps and someone else - perhaps Sed McConnell - will get the other third.)

Inside Linebackers

The rest of these will be about one-fifth the length of that last section. It was my chance to OH MY GOD BOTH JOHNNY AND KEITH ARE BACK so I needed to explore the space.

Inside linebacker seems fairly simple. Since I have the PFF snap count page open, I'll just go with those numbers.

We have two inside linebacker spots. Sometimes only one (when we're in that 5-1-5). Sometimes it's a 5-1-5 but Calvin Hart is one of the OLB's, not the Coleman/Jacas pairing. And all of that was the Walters defense, so Aaron Henry might tweak some things.

But for the most part, we had three guys (Tarique Barnes, Calvin Hart, and Isaac Darkangelo) playing two positions. Barnes was out there the most (564 snaps), with Hart and Darkangelo getting nearly the same amount of snaps (378 for Hart, 361 for Darkangelo).

I believe Hart's snaps will increase for his final season, so at inside linebacker, I'm guessing there's maybe 250 snaps available for someone. Most likely a returning linebacker like Kenenna Odeluga, Dylan Rosiek, or Scout Team Player Of The Year James Kreutz.

Sorry, newcomers - just not much available here. 2024 will be your year.


OK, now the newcomers can start paying attention. In the front seven (six?), there's 180 snaps out there for a nose guard and 250 for a linebacker. 430 snaps is like one guy playing 7-8 games. And the snaps will almost certainly go to backup players from last year. There's just nothing there for any newcomers (which is a really good thing).

Back here in the secondary? There's some space at corner and a ton of snaps at safety. Here's where the newcomers will be important.

Cornerback will see the biggest loss (obviously). Devon Witherspoon was our first consensus All American since 2011. That's a huge loss. We also lost the third corner (Terrell Jennings) who played a fair bit the first half of the year (124 snaps) but then missed the rest of the season with an injury. So cornerback will be the other starter from 2022 (Taz Nicholson, who missed the last three games with a dislocated wrist) plus one of the backups from last year (likely Tyler Strain who filled in for Taz those last three games).

There's still a lot of room for newcomers, though. Nicholson will almost certainly be a starter (and will be the #1 cornerback). But not only is the other starting spot up for grabs, so is the #3 spot and the #4 spot. No one has anything on lockdown (besides Taz).

Maybe this is the best way to say it:

Percentage of snaps available to newcomers on the defensive line: maybe, like, 7%?
Percentage of snaps available to newcomers at linebacker: 15% or so?
Percentage of snaps available to newcomers at cornerback: up to 60%?


Percentage of snaps available to newcomers at safety: 100%

Every snap can be taken by someone. We basically start three safeties, and all three safeties were seniors. So this isn't "both starting spots are up for grabs." This is "all three starting spots are up for grabs."

I have an idea who one of the safeties will be (Matt Bailey). And I think Xavier Scott is the heir apparent to Quan Martin at the Star position. But I don't have either of those names in ink. That's my opinion at each position, but this is a "returnees" article and neither of them qualify as a returnee (at least not in my book). Tarique Barnes has played 1,471 snaps at middle linebacker. That's a "returnee". Xavier Scott has played 143 snaps (at corner, due to injuries, and now he'll go back to Star). So his name will stay in pencil well into the season.

But say incoming freshman Saboor Karriem is some Gabe Jacas-like superstar freshman (but at free safety, not DE). Well then he gets the FS starting spot the first game. Say they like juco recruit Kaleb Patterson as Quan's replacement at Star. Then he'll have every opportunity to win the job starting with the first game. Three seniors graduated, the main two backups were both true freshmen, so all three spots are wiiiiiiiiide open.

Returnees at safety? Uh, no one.

(Tomorrow: returnees on offense.)


IlliniBobLoblaw on January 19, 2023 @ 09:26 AM

Now is when you rethink your stance on Witherspoon opting out of the bowl game

Not really. To me it's both true that a) he made the right decision for himself (and a decision I would have likely made) and b) he cheated Illinois fans.

Efrem on January 19, 2023 @ 01:34 PM

How did he cheat Illinois fans?

With the college football playoff - basically every other bowl game is an exhibition.

Him being a first round pick will deliver way more for Illinois fans than him playing in the reliaquest bowl

The idea he cheated any fans is silly.

IlliniBobLoblaw on January 19, 2023 @ 02:32 PM

...basically every other bowl game is an exhibition.

If that's the way you think, then given our team history, couldn't one say that about pretty much every game in every Illini season? I think fans can decide whether a bowl game or win is important to them.

Him being a first round pick...

The implication is that will translate to better recruits? Well how about the Illini fans that die before that happens? ;-)

amanda6901 on January 19, 2023 @ 02:49 PM

Lol. That is one of the worst takes I've ever read on a message board. In NO WAY did Spoon cheat Illini fans.

IlliniBobLoblaw on January 19, 2023 @ 03:28 PM

No. There's an unspoken contract between fans and players - we fans create the environment in which they can thrive and (possibly) become millionaires and they entertain us. College football isn't an Olympic sport like...I don't know...archery, where no fans means no problem (and more or less, no millions). Devon Witherspoon (and the Brown Brothers) will literally owe everything to the fans and, more generally, "the game". Yes, they have talent, and yes, they've worked harder than almost everyone else, but that wouldn't mean anything without the fans. Without us, there is no game.

So, when they made the choice they did they did it for themselves - I can't really blame them. But I can't pretend that I didn't lose a little respect for them either. Sure, on that afternoon in 2032 when they're waving at the crowd from the corner endzone of "2022 Team Day" I'll clap, but I'll probably be 25% less enthusiastic.

iluvrt on January 20, 2023 @ 06:46 PM

Without us, there are billions of TV dollars. I don't think they need us.

IlliniBobLoblaw on January 20, 2023 @ 08:06 PM

Who do you think is watching those games?

Dan Allen on January 19, 2023 @ 09:44 AM

Robert, what about Zeke Holmes? Seems like folks have forgotten he was the starter ahead of Jacas until his knee injury. Does he figure to return and add depth/take snaps from others?

on January 19, 2023 @ 11:53 AM

Is that Brad Underwood in the background of your Tanner Morgan getting sacked photo?

Duce20 on January 19, 2023 @ 04:14 PM

Keep an eye out for Solo Turner...

Robert on January 19, 2023 @ 05:22 PM

"Before I get to the individual positions, please remember that this is a "Returnees" post. You might want to say "Robert don't you think Jojo Hayden has a chance to play as a true freshman?" but that's not this article. This isn't even a depth chart article. This article is laying groundwork for talking about the incoming players. It is asking one question: of the players we saw on the field this past season, who is coming back? It's all pointing to the "incoming players" articles which are.. incoming."

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