The 2017 Illini defensive unit was, along with the team as a whole, one of the youngest in recent memory. Hampered by inexperience in much the same way as the offense, the defense still showed a number of positive surprises. Principally among them, the defense demonstrated that it was ready to hang with the mid-tier of the Big Ten conference.
The past season’s Illini offense kept the defense on the field for substantial portions of almost every game, which inevitably led to some late-game defensive breakdowns. However, before the defense wore down, the unit looked aggressive, and at its peak held No. 6 Wisconsin to 24 points. The fact that the defense would rely so heavily on freshmen and still play well enough to give the team a chance to hang around in 5-6 games was a major surprise.
As another pleasant surprise, many of the newcomers on defense significantly outplayed their high school recruiting rankings. Most notably, Safety Bennett Williams, and now ESPN.com Freshman All-American, has his only Power Five school offer from Illinois and was dominant. Although the sample size is limited, the early results certainly bode well for Lovie Smith’s player evaluation staff.
The freshmen clearly stole the show in 2017 on both sides of the ball, but a substantial number of older defensive players also turned in surprisingly productive seasons. Players like LB Dele Harding, CB Cam Watkins, and DT Tymir Oliver, along with other former Beckman/Cubit recruits, managed to beat out freshmen on the depth chart and make major contributions.
The results on the field last season reflect the youth and inexperience of the team as a whole, but the unexpected bright spots on defense should certainly offer hope to the Illini faithful.