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2014 Illinois Football Position Preview Series: Defensive Line

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In the second installment of TCR's position preview series, we take a look at a unit that struggled mightily in 2013; the defensive line. Can they improve in 2014?

USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, the Illini had quite possibly the best defensive line in the Big Ten. They were ranked eighth in the country during Ron Zook's final year with Illinois, and boasted ends like Michael Buchanan and Whitney Mercilus, both of whom are now in the NFL. Oh, how times have changed.

Our friends over at SBNation's Football Study Hall blog look at where NCAA defensive lines ranked in adjusted yards, sacks per game, turnovers forced, etc. and combined them into one composite ranking. And let me tell you, it wasn't pretty. The Illini dropped 63 spots in 2012 to rank 71st in the country and another 30 spots in 2013 to fall to 101st. Yikes. But before we take a look at how the line is shaping up for the 2014 season, here's the format for TCR's overall position preview series:

Over the next few weeks, we'll be providing you with a preview of each position group. Each article will contain last year's statistical leaders, a summary, and finally an overall grade grade--here's the grading scale:

A = Premier...one of the best in the nation
B = Strong...top half of the conference
C = Average...adequate B1G unit
D = Needs Improvement
F = Poor

Now let's jump into the defensive line.

Who's at the Helm?

Greg Colby coaches the defensive line for the Illini. He coached the DL at Michigan State too, and was also the defensive coordinator at Northwestern from 2002-2007. Colby has certainly seen his share of Big Ten games.

Statistical Leaders from DL in 2013

Austin Teitsma led the way on the DL last season with 53 tackles recorded (Five percent of the entire team's tackles), a sack, six tackles for loss, three "QB hurries", and a forced fumble as well. While it would be nice to see those three hurries turned into sacks, Teitsma is the oldest player on the Illini defense and should be very important to the success of the DL. And on top of all of that, the dude's funny as hell too:

He was one of the three Illini players selected to represent the team at Big Ten Media Days. Houston Bates and Tim Kynard were right behind Teitsma statistically speaking in 2013, but neither will be with the Illini this year due to transfer and graduation, respectively.

Teko Powell and Kenny Nelson are a pair of juniors who showed some promise on the DL last season. Both played 10 games and each of them recorded at least 12 tackles. Powell, who stands at six-foot-three and weighs over 300 pounds, even had a fumble recovery. Hopefully, he will be 100 percent healthy now: Powell missed the first two games in 2013 with a foot injury.

DeJazz Woods and Jake Howe, two linemen who played all 12 games in 2013, will be seniors this year and will look to improve upon their stats (just 18 tackles between the two of them).

Dawuane SmootJarrod Clements, and Robbie Bain are other returning linemen; all of them are now sophomores after being thrown into the fire as true freshman last season. Smoot showed some flashes of promise with six tackles (two of them being for a loss) and a sack as well; expect him to be a potential starter for that opening game against Youngstown State.

2013 Stats and Big Ten Rankings

This is a defensive line that was ranked 11th in the conference last season, giving up an average of 481.5 yards per game. They ranked 101st overall in the nation and simply weren't good. To delve more deeply into the stats, the Illini's sack rate ranked 114th, and their sacks-per-down rate was even worse at 117th (only sacked opposing QB's 2.2 percent of the time). They had a "stuff rate" of 17 percent last year which ranked 93rd in the nation. They also had a real problem stopping the ground game; they allowed five different RB's to top 200 yards rushing in a single game.

No matter where you look, the numbers weren't good in 2013 for the defensive line.

Summary of the 2014 Unit

Incoming JUCO players Joe FotuJihad Ward, and Abe Cajuste could really make a difference on the line in 2014. Everyone is talking about Ward, who's a six-foot-six, 290-pound beast. D-line coach Greg Colby said, "He can run and has a motor that never shuts down. Wait until you see this guy in game action." Other newcomers include ends Paul James (who didn't see field action last season due to academic troubles) and Tito Odenigbo (who was the first commit in the 2014 class), both of whom could be impact players down the road for the Illini defense.

Split squad rosters that Coach Beckman has released are pretty telling of whom he thinks will be the starters in 2014. Based on that list and my own opinion, the defensive line should look something like this:

1st String: LEO: Woods (rs-SR), DT: Powell (SO), DT: Teitsma (rs-SR), DE: Nelson (JR)
2nd String: LEO: Smoot (SO), DT: Ward (JR), DT: Fotu (JR), DE: James III (rs-FR)

Experience was both an issue and an excuse for the defensive line last season, but that will no longer be the case. In fact, the Illini were as middle of the pack as you could get when it comes to experience on the DL in 2013. They ranked 7th in the Big Ten in "combined years played" just behind MSU's unit. Freshmen and sophomores were all over the two-deep last year for Illinois, but as Coach Beckman mentioned in his Big Ten Media Day presser, those kids are now sophomores and juniors, with even a few seniors thrown in.

I expect significant improvement from the line in 2014, which is one of the most important positions to fix; the Illini sorely need a better blend of size and quickness defensively.

Overall Defensive Line Grade Prediction: C

Experience and depth should help this unit rebound and be middle of the pack after a 2013 season where they very easily could've received an ‘F' for their play.