We've already discussed how important both the defensive line and the linebackers will be in our last two previews, and today we take a look at the wild card. Every good story always has the wild card character.
And in this story that wild card is the secondary.
Oh man, these guys are so young. So, so young. Did you see the depth chart for the opener against Southern Illinois? Here's how the three-deep breaks down at cornerback and safety with this team.
There are two juniors in Earnest Thomas and Zane Petty. Both of them are strong safeties, so only one is starting and the other is a juco transfer that's yet to play a down with Illinois.
And that's why this unit is the wild card, because we really can't know what to expect. Oh, sure, we should expect mistakes. That's only natural with a unit that's so young and lacks experience, but how many mistakes will we see? What if these guys actually turn out to be pretty damn good?
I know I'm yet to see Taylor Barton play in a real game, but when I have seen him play I know I like what I see.
I also know that coaches have been very pleased with what they've seen from Darius Mosely.
Finally I know that last year's secondary was not good. The Illini had a defensive pass efficiency of 149.48, which wasn't only the worst in the Big Ten, but it ranked 110th in the country. Against conference opponents that number was even worst at 153.67.
So while young an inexperience, it's not exactly a stretch to think that this year's Illinois secondary will be better than last year's. It'll be hard to be worse.
Now, what this unit will need is somebody to make plays. I know that sounds generically simple, but that's because it is. As I said, we know that this unit is going to make mistakes. Coverages will be blown and opposing receivers will be found wide open behind the defense for touchdowns. They'll anger you when they happen, but you should know they're going to happen right now. It's just part of the deal with this youth.
However, those mistakes can be covered up somewhat by big plays from Illini defenders.
One of the reasons I really like Taylor Barton is because the kid generally finds himself near the ball. He was every where during the spring game, and he has showed up quite well during fall camp as well. He's just somebody who makes things happen, and that's exactly what the Illini need on defense.
Hopefully Barton's performances translate to the field and he provides the Illini defense with a spark, because if this secondary can play above expectations this season, this defense as a whole will be a lot better than anything we're expecting.
Position Grade: D+
There's a whole lot of potential in this unit, but I'm not giving these grades based on potential. I'm giving them based on what we have right now, and as I just spent 500 words telling you, this unit is very young and we don't know what we have. So I can't go higher than this right now, but I suspect at the end of the year this grade could be significantly better.
2012 Stats and Big Ten Rankings
149.48 defensive pass efficiency (12th), 8.1 yards allowed per pass attempt (12th), 7 interceptions (10th - tied for last), 62.5% completion percentage against (11th), 40 passes defended (11th)
135.00 defensive pass efficiency, 6.5 yards allowed per attempt, 12 interceptions, 60% completion percentage against, 50 passes defended