I started this post thinking that it would be a good idea to give you an overview of how the defense works. It got a little long. If you don't have the time, desire, need or attention to read that part, feel free to skip to the four asterisks. It won't hurt my feelings. I promise.
To know the Illinois defense, you must know that they have a non-traditional defense in terms of player responsibility and positioning. Depending on the situation, there can be two to four "linebackers" on the field.
The classification of linebacker generally means a player who, at the snap of the ball, is standing three to five yards behind the line of scrimmage. That's a loose definition. A modern day defense can have more moving parts than an ocean, and linebackers are the most mobile.
The Fighting Illini have two positions that are hybrids. The players that play those positions
can should be able to switch between two positions. They are the LEO that works as a weak-side DE or a linebacker, and the STAR which flips between working as a safety or -- you guessed it -- a linebacker, usually on the strong-side of the offense. (Strong-side is the half of the field where the tight end lines up, or if no tight end or multiple tight ends, where the offense lines up the majority of their players.) I believe LEO stands for Linebacker/End Option --> L/EO. STAR stands for Safety That Attacks Readily... actually I don't know what it stands for. I just made that up.
The positions of the defense on a normal play, let's say a 1st & 10 at the opponent's 35, would have four defensive linemen with the LEO player looking like a normal DE, two linebackers, and five defensive backs with the STAR in DB-mode. Generally it's called a 4-2-5, but it can easily change into a 4-3, a 3-4, or even put eight men in the box.
In concept it sounds like a good idea: You mean on any given play my defense can morph into whatever it wants? Yeah, but there's drawbacks. It requires immense amounts of skill and experience to truly master one position; the LEO and STAR have to do twice as much. If they aren't able to make that conversion, you'll be seeing giant voids of space appear allowing for wide-open receivers or free-running backs (that's, free-running running backs, not free running backs).
* * * *
The starting players that run the four LB/LB-ish positions include a prospect, two studs, and few guys in competition
The prospect would be T.J. Neal. He's a redshirt sophomore who replaces Jonathan Brown and will most likely play as one of our middle linebackers for the next three years. He got playing time in all twelve games last year, racking up 38 tackles and one tackle-for-loss. I'll be watching him this year to see if can start to read and react to the offense faster than before. He's not slow by any means, but quick reflexes can push him to the next level of play.
Mason Monheim and Earnest Thomas III are the studs. They return as our two leading tacklers of 2013 and both are vitally important to the success of this defense, and ultimately this team's bowl hopes.
Monheim was the first recruit to commit after the hire of Beckman. ESPN gave the Orrville, Ohio native a 2-star rating. Ha. Since then he's become one of the best tacklers on the team, using the full momentum of his body to bring down ballcarrier. Monheim's only a junior, so if you like him now, just wait until next year. One thing he could improve on would be his coverage skills. He's not the fastest player and some tight end matchups could cause trouble if other players aren't there to cover over the top. Even so, he's one of the best players on the entire 2014 Illini roster. It will be Neal and Monheim who will get the majority of the traditional linebacker snaps.
Thomas is another 2-star recruit and is one of the few remaining members of the team that beat UCLA in the Illini's last bowl victory (or game) in 2011-12. Now a senior, he'll be switching to the STAR position after playing strong safety last year. He's got the assets for it too: good in coverage, quality tackling, and a hankering for big hits. I don't know of a player on the team who would be a better match than Thomas.
The LEO position hasn't actually been fully settled just yet. Camp Rantoul is currently in session and the competition is in full swing. Juco transfer Carroll Phillips was recruited to come in and take over, but so far in camp there's been mention that he's moved into the weak-side middle linebacker role. This could be a way to force Phillips into learning the LB part of the position since he should know the basic concepts of playing his native DE position, or it could be a way to bolster depth. We'll have to wait and see.
The two other players vying for playing time at LEO are senior DeJazz Woods and sophomore Dawuane Smoot. They both played last season, Woods more than Smoot. Of the four LB/LB-ish positions, the LEO is our weakest. Woods is a senior, and if anyone can have a unexpectedly great season, it'll be the guy with the most experience. Smoot will be a good player in the future, but right now there's some work to do still.
Another player of note is junior Mike Svetina. He played STAR last season but has moved to a backup linebacker role after Thomas took over. It was announced late last week that Svetina will be out until mid-to-late October with a broken foot. His ability and experience at three of the LB positions gave this team some much need depth, and now that we're without that safety net, we'll just have to cross our fingers and pray.
Our linebackers have to be versatile. They're all over the field, simultaneously trying to stop the run and pass on every single play. Can the LEO and STAR players successfully learn two positions at once? Can the group develop a pass rush (which was scarce last year)? Can they hold up for an entire season? These are just a few questions I have, but overall I believe they have a good chance to flourish. They aren't the strongest group in the B1G or even on our team, but Monheim and Thomas are ready to have dominant seasons.
Look for our Position Preview of the Defensive Backs on Friday!