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2015 Illinois Linebacker Preview: Mason Monheim headlines veteran unit

Everything you need to know about the Illinois linebackers in 2015.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is almost here! In just 32 days Illinois will be facing off against Kent State at Memorial Stadium. Over the next few weeks, The Champaign Room will be previewing the 2015 season with position previews, player profiles, biggest storylines, and more. Make sure to check back each day for something new.

First up is our position preview series, where we'll examine the strength and weaknesses of each group on the field. Today we'll be kicking things off by taking a closer look at Mason Monheim and the Fighting Illini linebackers.

Position Overview

Returning Starters: Mason Monheim, T.J. Neal

Key Losses: Earnest Thomas III, Ralph Cooper

Other Returners: Eric Finney, James Crawford, B.J. Bello, LaKeith Walls, Mike Svetina, Tre Watson, Austin Roberts

Newcomers: Julian Jones, Justice Williams

You know the linebacking core is experienced when you see that Mason Monheim is now a senior. Thrown into the fire as a freshmen, the senior linebacker has played in 37 games during his tenure as an Illini. Elsewhere, Earnest Thomas III departed this Spring, but Eric Finney has been waiting behind him for his shot. He'll battle with talented sophomore James Crawford for the starting STAR spot. Juniors Mike Sventina, B.J Bello and LaKeith Walls will fill out the backup roles and they'll give the Illini ready reinforcements in the event of injury.

Illinois also adds two freshman linebackers in Julian Jones and Justice Williams. Although they're both very talented, they may not see the field in 2015--but it is possible. If they redshirt, they'll have some time to learn the position along with redshirt freshmen Austin Roberts and Tre Watson.

Key Player

Mason Monheim

Monheim has played the role of 'Iron Man' for the Illini since his freshman year; after being forced to play as a freshman in 2012, he's started the last 35 games at linebacker. Monheim has always been very consistent, and that payed off last season when he was named honorable mention All-Big Ten after averaging 8.5 tackles per game. This season, you can expect the senior to be named to an All-Big Ten team. This is his defense now and he'll be charged with improving the the unit's effectiveness against the run.

Illinois v Northwestern

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Mason Monheim #43 of the Illinois Fighting Illini and Ralph Cooper #42 celebrate Monheim's interception touchdown against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second half on November 29, 2014 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. The Illinois Fighting Illini defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 47-33.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Big Question

Who will replace Earnest Thomas III at STAR?

Earnest Thomas was a huge part of the linebackers' success in 2014--he was everything Illinois needed at the STAR position and more. His pass coverage and rushing ability made him extremely versatile so it'll be difficult to replace him. But someone has to do it.

The battle will be between senior Eric Finney and sophomore James Crawford. Finney has backed-up at the STAR spot for the last two years and seems ready to claim the starting role. Crawford is only in his second year with the team, but he has some talent and it wouldn't be out of the question to see him start provided a good showing during training camp. Regardless, we'll probably see him in a more significant role.

Projected Depth Chart

1st String 2nd String 3rd String
Outside Linebacker Mason Monheim LaKeith Walls B.J. Bello
Middle Linebacker T.J. Neal Mike Sventina Tre Watson
STAR Eric Finney OR James Crawford Justice Williams Nelson Lugo

You'll start to notice a theme as we keep going through these defensive preview posts. The experienced 1st string is pretty much set while the 2nd string is filled with younger players to backup. It's starting to like like a power-five defense! Again, STAR is really the only position here that doesn't have much depth, but the team will be fine with Finney and Crawford as long as there aren't any injuries.

Taking a look at the 2nd string, LaKeith Walls was very good at blitzing from the outside on select plays last year (he forced the fumble that almost turned the bowl game around). He'll give Illinois a nice change of pace from Monheim on the outside.

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