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2014 Illinois Football Position Preview Series: Secondary

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The Fighting Illini's defense ranked as one of the worst units in the country in 2013 and the secondary played a major role in their moribund numbers. What can we expect out of the unit in 2014?

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers were so bad they're almost not even worth rehashing. But I'll do it anyway because, I don't know, maybe I'm a masochist and what the hell else am I going to do for the next several hundred words?

  • In 2013, opposing quarterbacks attempted 332 passes against the Fighting Illini.
  • Three of those 332 attempts landed in the arms of an Illinois defender.
  • 221 of those 332 attempts were successfully completed (66.7 percent).
  • 27 of those 332 attempts ended with the opponents celebrating in the end zone.
  • Each time the opposing quarterback dropped back to pass, he could expect to get pretty damn close to a first down (8.3 yards per attempt).

The list goes on, but by all accounts 2013 wasn't pretty for the defense, and the secondary contributed to those paltry numbers.

But how much was the secondary actually to blame? Matt Silich did a pretty good job of breaking down what went wrong with the defense in his grades of the defense following last season, but it's worth rehashing that as bad as the unit was, a lot of bad luck went into the numbers above, namely a very low percentage of passes defended that actually ended up caught by said defenders.

Likewise, a horrid defensive line, which Trevor previewed on Monday, was unable to do much in terms of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, putting extra pressure on an already reeling and inexperienced group of players.

One can reasonably assume that a simple regression to the mean in the numbers aided by luck will make the Illini's secondary — and defense as a whole — better in 2014. But that simply isn't good enough to rely upon. After all, bad luck in 2013 doesn't necessarily guarantee good luck in 2014. And even a little bad luck isn't nearly enough to overshadow the team's inept ability to do the simple things that make a defense successful — tackling, covering, shedding blocks.

A reason for optimism could also be tied to experience, something you'll hear pundits tout often when discussing a team's criteria for success. But one must be careful in assuming experience = ability. Sure, the Illini return experience at each secondary position. But whether those players actually progress from one year to the next is to be determined.

Let's take a look at some of 2014's expected contributors, shall we?

V'Angelo Bentley

The junior has shown his dynamic playmaking ability as a kick returner during his two years on campus, but has yet to really take a step forward in terms of being a consistent force at cornerback. The speed will always make him a threat, but at 5-foot-10, his size has given him troubles and he'll need to be more consistent in coverage if the Illini want to improve as a unit.

Eaton Spence

Another junior who has seen quite a bit of action during his two years of eligibility (he redshirted one year), Spence showed flashes of being an impact player but, again, must become more consistent. After starting all 12 games of his sophomore season and two as a freshman, the book is still out on whether the former two-star recruit can make the leap to being a solid contributor.

Zane Petty

Petty was arguably the Illini's most consistent secondary contributor in 2013 (next to Earnest Thomas III, who will play a more hybrid linebacker role in the upcoming season). In his first season with the team, the then-junior took over as the starting free safety in Week 6 and went on to become the Illini's fourth leading tackler. Like Thomas (and all of the defensive backs who recorded high tackle numbers), much of that production is skewed by the fact that A) opponents spent a lot of time in the defensive backfield and B) there was a lot of blown coverage, but Petty certainly showed signs of being a brute at the safety position.

Caleb Day

Of the four projected starters in this year's defensive backfield, Day saw the least time on the field in 2013. However, the sophomore was arguably the most hyped prospect of the group and is the most likely candidate to take a big step forward in 2014. Despite recording all of nine tackles in eight games played in 2013, we might forget that Day was considered a four-star prospect when Tim Beckman nabbed him out of Hillard Darby High School in Ohio. He'll be a player to watch, for sure.

Other Dudes

Jaylen Dunlap recorded two pass break-ups last season, which is noteworthy only because not a lot of Illini did that in 2013. Jevaris Little was primarily a special teamer last season, but the former 3-star recruit could see action at safety in 2014 if the safety duo of Petty and Spence falters or gets injured. Taylor Barton was replaced by Petty as starting free safety part of the way through the season, but, umm, at least he has experience? Darius Mosely started a few games in 2013 during the injury to Bentley and has shown quite a bit of potential. Expect him to see the field quite a bit in 2014, even if he's not a starter.

Summation

I think you get the gist here: A lot of these players have experience, but a lot of these players have yet to prove they're worth a damn on the field. 2014 will be a telling year for pretty much the entire Illini defense (as well as coordinator Tim Banks), and the success (or lack thereof) of the secondary will go a long way to determining if the Illini can take a step forward as a whole.