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TCR Roundtable Discussion: Will the Illinois defense take a step back in 2016?

The Illini need to replace four of their top five tacklers from 2015.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, members of the TCR staff will convene for weekly roundtable discussions on topics related to Illinois athletics. This post will feature Eliot Sill, Jim Vainisi, and Austin Jabs discussing Fighting Illini football's defense; this is a continuation of last week's post on the Illinois offense.

Have suggestions for next week's discussion? Drop down to the comments and let us know!


1. The Fighting Illini had one of the top defenses in the country last year, but the unit has been hit hard with coaching changes and player departures this offseason. What are your overall expectations heading into 2016?

ELIOT SILL: I expect dumb mistakes, big plays here and there, frustrating stretches without being able to get a stop, but a heightened level of consistent defense and signs that Lovie's philosophy is manifesting. Attitude and confidence are huge, and both should be increased knowing what Smith and Nickerson have done in their time. Illinois is not going to win 9 or 10 games this year, and not all the struggles will be squarely on the offense, but the opportunity is there for Illinois to assume a defensive identity.

JIM VAINISI: Let's get this out of the way right now: the Fighting Illini defense won't be as good as last year. Jihad Ward, Mason Monheim, Clayton Fejedelem, V'Angelo Bentley, and T.J. Neal are five huge departures, and I'm not quite sure the unit will have enough returning depth to replace that production. So as for a quantifiable goal, hopefully the defense ends the year in the top 70?

As Eliot mentioned a bit above, the coaching staff and players can certainly control one variable, though -- attitude. I hate to be that guy to go all 'BRING THE MONSTERS OF THE MIDWAY TO CHAMPAIGN', but that mindset is exactly what I'd like to see from this program.

2. Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson have the potential to create a top tier defense in Champaign. What would you like to see the duo implement (i.e. specific schemes, philosophies, mindsets, etc.) in their first season?

AUSTIN JABS: Let me describe what i would like to see...there are not a ton of great quarterbacks in the Big Ten, so I would want to focus heavily on the run. I would set a couple guys as a spy type player that can hold the middle of the field. They would be able to minimize the likelihood of a short pass, but also focus on the opposing quarterback and running back to take away the run. I know that when you hear the term 'spy', your first thought is someone watching the quarterback, but in my mind, they would focus on both. This is basically a hybrid iteration of the Tampa 2.

VAINISI: We're basically guaranteed to see some form of the Tampa 2, right? For those of you that aren't familiar with that scheme, you can go ahead and click here for a nice explainer. But I just want to kinda echo what Austin said. The quarterbacks in the Big Ten West are fairly atrocious; if the Illini can minimize their production while slowing down some talented running backs, they'll be good shape for the next few years.

3. There will be several starting positions up for grabs throughout the defense, and underclassmen will be competing to fill at least a few of them. Do you expect anyone to have a Ke'Shawn Vaughn-esque impact in 2016?

JABS: I really think Cameron Watkins can come in and have an immediate impact at corner this season. The loss of V'Angelo Bentley leaves a little shallowness at the position, and Watkins athletic ability (ran track, high jump, and long jump in high school) makes him a valuable asset for this defense. Watkins has the potential to be one of those backs that make life difficult for solid receivers. While he is only 6'0", his leaping ability, as well as his speed, will wreck havoc on opposing offenses.

VAINISI: Assuming he'll be able to play, I'll go with sophomore linebacker Julian Jones. There's a ton of playing time available at the position, so it's hard to imagine a scenario where Jones won't get at least a small handful of reps each game. My 'darkhorse', per say, is incoming freshman De'le Harding; the three-star linebacker had other scholarship offers from Tennessee and Southern Cal. There's probably a 0.5% chance that he starts, but Harding could see field pretty early.

4. Which position battles will you be keeping an eye throughout Spring practice and Fall training camp?

SILL: Five of the six leading tacklers from last year are no longer in Champaign. That seems high. Illinois needs to see someone emerge in the linebacking corps as a statistical leader, and a vocal leader wouldn't hurt, either. Losing T.J. Neal to transfer bites, leaving behind a young group of linebackers and ... Mike Svetina. Brian Urlacher was the key to Lovie's success in Chicago, and while we can't expect an exact replica of that defense to appear in Champaign, strength at linebacker is even more essential.

VAINISI: Is it fair to say all of them? Because there are going to be position battles all over the field, and I'm not sure even the coaches have a clue as to how the depth chart will end up. But I'm particularly interested in the secondary. Who will replace V'Angelo Bentley and Clayton Fejedelem?

Final Thoughts

SILL: It's about scoring, remember? Lovie's goals on defense are lofty, but they're exactly what Illinois needs. Beyond defense, special teams can become a strength for Illinois is his scoring defensive mentality catches on. Changes are tough, but you have to feel the team is at its peak motivational level going from an offensive head coach to a legendary defensive head coach and a former Pro-Bowler as coordinator to boot.

JABS: September 3rd can't get here soon enough. I think most fans are dying to see what Lovie Smith and this staff is able to put on the field. This team still has to get better on both sides of the ball, but this staff is they type of staff you want in place teaching these student athletes. An NFL caliber staff in the Big a weak division...the future is looking bright in Champaign.

VAINISI: Make Illinois great again!