Third String - Defense
OK here we go. This first inning I'm gonna just groove some fastballs. If they hit 'em out, they hit 'em out. This is AA, and I'm here to get my feel back. Score doesn't matter, ERA doesn't matter - the feel of the stitching is what matters. Batter up.
This post is Part II of the "third string" portion of this offseason football series. A quick recap of how I'm going about this:
- Who is returning? Which players that we saw on the field last year will be on the field this year? I covered both the offense and the defense.
- Now that we know the open spots, will those replacements come from freshmen/transfers or are there some third-stringers from last season who might be ready next season? (This is Part II of that - I covered the offense here.)
- If the guys on the roster can't fill those open spots, it will have to come from the incoming freshmen/transfers. How many of those players are ready to fill those roles?
As we talked about when covering the returnees on defense, it's a crazy contrast. DL and LB? We return so much. Secondary? We lost nearly everything. A quick recap of the defensive snaps returning (I'll draw the line at 150 snaps played last season).
DL and LB returning
Johnny Newton (DL) - 723 snaps
Tarique Barnes (ILB) - 608 snaps
Keith Randolph (DL) - 597 snaps
Seth Coleman (Edge) - 571 snaps
Gabe Jacas (Edge) - 502 snaps
Calvin Hart (ILB) - 383 snaps
TeRah Edwards (DL) - 206 snaps
Alec Bryant (Edge) - 194 snaps
Bryce Barnes (DL) - 151 snaps
CB and S returning
Taz Nicholson - 392 snaps
Matt Bailey - 180 snaps
Tyler Strain - 172 snaps
I called that defense a 5-1-5 last year, so if Tarique Barnes was the 1 (and he returns), here's the starting snaps lost from the five guys in front of him and the five guys behind him:
DL and Edge - 433 starter snaps lost
Secondary - 2,898 starter snaps lost
Picture painted? Picture painted.
Let's see if there are third stringers from last year ready to step up into some of those roles:
Of the five guys along the defensive line (three defensive linemen, two edge guys), the only players to depart are Calvin Avery (NG) and Jamal Woods (backup DL with 111 snaps last season). Second-string NG TeRah Edwards likely steps up into the starting role there, so the snaps available here are Edwards' 206 snaps as the backup nose and Woods' 111 snaps as a backup DL.
And it's possible that both of those backup spots will be filled with third-string guys moving up. In the final two weeks of the season (the Northwestern game and the bowl game), Sed McConnell appeared to already make that move from third string to second string DL. After only playing 14 snaps on the season (all during non-conference play), McConnell got 19 snaps in the Northwestern game and 20 in the bowl game. So it appears that for his redshirt sophomore season, he'll be one of the main backups for Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph.
If Edwards moves into the starting NG role, then his backup might be a third-stringer from last season, Raashaan Wilkins (2022 transfer from Vanderbilt). Wilkins only got 15 snaps last season, but he has one more year of eligibility and at 315 lbs he's probably the player most likely to plug the middle. And if neither McConnell or Wilkins are ready to move up from third string, it could be junior-to-be Evan Kirts.
There's not really anything to add here. If Ezekiel Holmes returns 100% healthy for the 2023 season (he injured his knee in the third game and missed the rest of the season), then you have every single Edge guy returning. It will be a heavy dose of Gabe Jacas, Seth Coleman, and Alec Bryant (with Holmes mixed in if healthy). Third stringers on the roster for next year appear to be the third-stringers from last season: Shammond Cooper and Jared Badie (who redshirted).
No real snaps available, so no real discussion necessary for this section of the Third String post.
This one is very similar to Edge. There is one player who graduated, and he was the leading tackler on the team last year even though he didn't start (Isaac Darkangelo). Linebacker was a heavy rotation of three guys (Tarique Barnes, Calvin Hart, and Darkangelo) with a little bit of third down stuff from Kenenna Odeluga.
So maybe the best way to look at this is to assume that Odeluga moves up into the three-man rotation with Barnes and Hart. And that leaves his 144 (mostly third down) snaps available. Who from the third string might take those snaps? I think there are two clear candidates: Dylan Rosiek and James Kreutz.
Rosiek did get 48 defensive snaps last season, so he was clearly next man up when it came to the third string. And James Kreutz, who redshirted, was named scout team defensive player of the year at the postseason banquet. In 2024, after Barnes and Hart graduate, I believe the three-man linebacker rotation will absolutely be Odeluga, Rosiek, and Kreutz. What we saw from Darkangelo last season is exactly what I expect from Kreutz in 2024, 2025, and 2026.
But for now, with Hart and Barnes both getting one more season and Odeluga having the most experience of the backups, there just aren't many snaps to be had. So let's move on to the "my God, so many snaps to be had" portion of the program.
Instead of discussing cornerbacks and then safeties, I think the best way to do this is to discuss the entire secondary as a whole. Mostly because the most important position on this defense is the Star position (half-corner, half-safety). Some look at that position and think of it as a guy who comes on for a nickel package or something, but go look at the snap counts from last season. Most snaps on the entire defense? Quan Martin. This secondary begins with the Star position, it doesn't fill it in here and there when departing from the base defense.
So if we have five starters in the secondary and four just left (three to graduation, Devon Witherspoon a year early to go to the draft), then the biggest third-string spotlight on the entire roster shines right here. There are going to be a ton of new faces in the secondary next season. Will they come from the guys who were over on the sideline last year?
In the "returnees" section we talked about the players we saw last year (namely Tyler Strain at corner, Xavier Scott at Star, and Matt Bailey at safety) who all started the bowl game. Those are the three very obvious "time to move from second string to first string" guys.
But that doesn't even fill in all of the starting spots. One starter returns (Taz Nicholson). Let's say Strain moves up to be the other starting corner, Scott is the starting Star, and Bailey is one of the two starting safeties. That still means that one of the starting spots (and ALL FIVE backup spots) will either come from third-stringers or newcomers. My goodness.
Better make a list:
- Solo Turner is probably the most intriguing name. The son of former Illini Scott Turner (shoutout 1994 defense), Turner played two years at Baylor until a coaching change led him to Hawaii until a coaching change led him to Illinois. With a redshirt year and a Covid year, he has two years of eligibility remaining (and was on the roster all of last season learning the defense). He played in 13 games for Hawaii in 2021 so... perhaps he'll be the surprise of the defense?
- There are also two safeties who will be redshirt sophomores in 2023 (after having practice two years in this defensive system): Prince Green and Kionte Curry. Green was a Lovie recruit and Curry was one of Bielema's first recruits after he got the job. Curry seemed to be the next safety in line last year (behind the seniors + Matt Bailey), so perhaps he moves up into the starting lineup?
- I've already mentioned two of the true freshmen from last fall (Bailey and Scott) who will likely be moving from second-string to first-string this fall, but there's also three other defensive backs who redshirted. Tyson Rooks and Elijah Mc-Cantos were at corner last fall (I still maintain that Rooks, who is 6'-4", will eventually be a wide receiver) and TJ Griffin was at safety.
The main takeaway here: Five positions in the secondary, and to fill out both first string and second string, I need ten names. One starter (Nicholson) and three backups (Strain, Bailey, and Scott) return. Which means I need six more names just to fill out the depth chart. I just listed six names within those bullet points.
But it never works out like that. Odds are, three of those six make it and three of those six can't cut it in the Big Ten. Which means that this fall, three newcomers (either freshmen or transfers) will likely be in the two-deep on defense. It's possible one or two might move directly into the starting lineup (hi Saboor!). We really need this DB class to be a home run.
Alright, the manager is making his way to the mound so I guess I reached my pitch count. Arm feels good. Control is off, but that will come.
Time to go ice my shoulder.