Football season is almost here! In just 31 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 V'Angelo Bentley and the Fighting Illini secondary.
Returning Starters: V'Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence, Taylor Barton, Clayton Fejedelem
Key Losses: Zane Petty
Other Returners: Darius Mosely, Jaylen Dunlap, Davontay Kwaaning, Caleb Day, Jevaris Little, Dillan Cazley
Newcomers: Patrick Nelson (torn ACL), Cameron Watkins, Frank Sumpter
More than any other position on the team, Tim Beckman knows what his Fighting Illini have in the secondary. Zane Petty was excellent at stopping players before the second level in 2015, totaling the second most tackles on the team (109) and most solo tackles (49), but Clayton Fejedelem and Taylor Barton are well-prepared to fill in (literally) in his absence.
Fejedelem, a former walk-on, received the third-most time at the safety position last season and was certainly no slouch. Barton has improved considerably since he received significant playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2013. The Illini may not have the best safeties in the Big Ten, but Barton and Fej are ready to step into their roles with confidence.
Caleb Day is likely the last name to consider at safety-- he could push one of these two for playing time, as perhaps the best athlete in the entire secondary. The Illini could use his playmaking ability on the back end, as long as he can limit mistakes. Jevaris Little is a headhunter on special teams-- it'd be nice to see how he does at the safety spot, at least during the cupcake-filled non-conference schedule.
At cornerback, you should be well-acquainted with the usual suspects by now. V'Angelo Bentley is one of the most exciting playmakers in the country during returns, but he has yet to provide a similar excitement on the defensive side of the ball (Minnesota game notwithstanding). Eaton Spence is the epitome of a guy that's just always going to be there, and that's no slight to Spence. Though not the best athlete, he's quick enough to keep up with the average B1G receiver and will play smart.
Between Jaylen Dunlap, Darius Mosely, and Davontay Kwaaning, there's plenty of competition for the third and fourth cornerback spots on the depth chart. Dunlap is perhaps starting behind the eight-ball due to his recent injury troubles, but he has the highest potential of all three.
The theme throughout this entire secondary is experience. The depth is there, and the starters have been at this for quite a while. It's hard to expect breakout seasons from most of these guys-- it seems like they're mostly finished products at this point-- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Chemistry, honed and refined over years of playing together, could make this secondary the best position group on the team. At the very least, it's the group with the lowest chance of busting completely.
This was covered briefly above-- if V'Angelo Bentley has an NFL future, this is his last chance to show it. Certainly he may sneak into the final rounds of the draft purely due to his game-breaking ability as a punt and kick returner, but he could help himself considerably by using his speed to break on balls in the secondary with greater frequency. Bentley will never have the height nor weight to keep up with receivers at the NFL or high tier B1G level, but he must use his quickness more effectively in coverage.
Bentley has played in 34 games through his first three seasons and has just two interceptions to his name. An improved defensive line and experienced linebacker core should provide increased pressure on quarterbacks, leaving more rushed and/or errant throws on which the secondary must pounce. It's year four for V'Angelo Bentley, and it's time to show he can excel in more than one phase of the game.
Can this unit create turnovers?
Illinois totaled seven interceptions in 2012, three interceptions in 2013, and seven interceptions in 2014. In 2014, the national average number of team interceptions was 12. The Illini secondary has sucked at creating turnovers. It's not difficult to imagine a world in which the Illini have five more interceptions spread across last season and win at least one more game (Oh hey, Purdue game).
With seniors starting at three of the four secondary positions, and the aforementioned improvements to the defensive line, it's time to put up defensive numbers in the passing game. The run should be stopped with greater ease this year (and if it's not, frankly none of this matters), allowing for more third-and-long scenarios, where interceptions are most frequent.
Fans saw the potential an aggressive secondary could unlock for the Fighting Illini when the team intercepted Northwestern quarterback Zach Oliver three times on their way to a 47-33 destruction in Evanston. It would be lovely to see more than one example of that in this coming season.
Projected Depth Chart
|CB1||V'Angelo Bentley||Darius Mosely||Chris James|
|SS||Clayton Fejedelem||Jevaris Little||Dillan Cazley|
|FS||Taylor Barton||Caleb Day||Darwyn Kelly|
|CB2||Eaton Spence||Jaylen Dunlap||Davontay Kwaaning|
The starters are pretty standard-- this is a unit that saw plenty of time on the field in 2014. The back-ups are pretty fluid, but should shape up somewhat like this. Kwaaning could be ahead of Dunlap to start the season, but I like Dunlap to catch up to him by the end of the year. Jevaris Little is a personal favorite of mine, and he may not see as much time as I have him slated for here. Day is an interesting case, and will probably back up either safety position if an injury or a need for rest occurs. A big year from him could vault this group to a new level.
The third-string spots beyond Davontay Kwaaning and Dillan Cazley seem like complete toss-ups, so I went with redshirt freshman Chris James and sophomore Darwyn Kelly. If either of these guys sees extensive playing time in 2015, then injuries have badly hurt the secondary's solid depth.