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2017 Illinois Football Player Reviews: Linebackers

Illinois’ depth at linebacker was hurt after two transfers left at the end of the year.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our series reviewing the performance of each Illinois player as we see what might be in store for the Illini’s future with the linebacking core.

Today, we take a look at the linebackers. Illinois lost three players to transfers from this posistion — Tre Watson, Christion Abercrombie, and Julian Jones. There isn’t much depth behind them, and Illinois will need to bring in recruits who can contribute right away. But as of right now, Illinois only have one linebacker commit — Khalan Tolson — in the class of 2018. Better get to ‘crootin them backers.


Julian Jones

Julian Jones Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
7 29 16 13 1 0 1 1 0 1

Julian Jones started four games for Illinois and was building himself into a solid linebacker for the Illini. He was very mobile and showed some decent ability in coverage. He missed the final five games due to injury.

Unfortunately for Illinois, Jones decided to transfer from the team following his junior season. Jones would have be a strong contender to be starting next fall, and losing him is a big blow to depth.

Del’Shawn Phillips

Del’Shawn Phillips Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
11 85 46 39 4 1 2 0 0 0

Del’Shawn Phillips is a very solid and a fundamentally sound linebacker. He won’t wow you with athleticism, but Phillips makes tackles and few errors. He isn’t the best in coverage, but he proved very useful as a tackling machine. He also didn’t force any turnovers and provided little in the pass rush.

All in all, Phillips is a good, yet unspectacular linebacker, and a very useful player for the Illinois defense. He has one year of eligibility left with Illinois. He is the only current linebacker on the roster you can count on being a big contributor in 2018.

Dele Harding

Dele Harding Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
8 32 17 15 0 0 0 0 0 0

Harding had an fine 2017 in his second year with the program. He missed four games due to injury, but was able to start in five games as well. He is a very good player on special teams, and he will look to solidify his spot on the defense in spring ball and training camp.

James Knight

James Knight Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
12 3 1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0

Knight was mostly a special teams player as a true freshman, but he did start one game against Wisconsin. Sadly for him, he was ejected for targeting in that game.

He was a safety in high school, and he could fit into the undersized “coverage” linebacker mold in the future. Defenses want linebackers who are fast and can run sideline to sideline to defend the option, while also being able to cover a slot receiver from time to time. Knight has potential to be a good player for Illinois, but has a long way to go.

Justice Williams

Justice Williams Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
11 9 4 5 0 0 1 0 0 0

The sophomore Williams played in eleven games, mostly on special teams. He has only appeared sparingly with the defense, but he could see a greater role in 2018 with the lack of depth at linebacker.

Tre Watson

Tre Watson Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
9 65 36 29 4.5 1.5 3 1 0 1

Tre Watson was by far the best linebacker for the Illini and one of the two best players on the defense, alongside Bennett Williams. He is a complete linebacker who can play the run and the pass well. He also was one of the better pass rushers on the team, and he led the team with five quarterback hurries.

Watson decided to transfer from Illinois following his redshirt junior season. He will be able to play immediately for any program by using the grad transfer rule. I don’t hold anything against Watson for transferring, and I hope the program doesn’t either. I hope he finds a spot to play that has a chance at getting to a decent bowl game in 2018.

Maybe he’ll be joining fellow former Illini Ke’Shaun Vaughn at Vanderbilt.

Christion Abercrombie

Christion Abercrombie Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
11 11 6 5 0 0 0 0 0 0

Abercrombie saw little of the field in his redshirt freshman season. He decided to transfer away from the program.

Jake Hansen

Hansen suffered a season-ending injury during training camp and missed the entire 2017 season. Since Illinois didn’t redshirt Hansen in his freshman season, Illinois can use a medical redshirt year.

He was mostly a special teams player in 2016, and he should be in the role again with the chance to compete for playing time if he’s healthy.

Jimmy Marchese

Jimmy Marchese Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
12 18 7 11 1 0 0 0 0 0

Jimmy Marchese became the first non-scholarship player to start a game for Illinois since Clayton Fejedlem.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go too well for Marchese.

The Stevenson (Lincolnshire, Illinois) High School grad was posterized on a couple of runs where he was out of posistion and blew his assignment.

He is one of the best special team players on the team — Marchese led the Illini with five special-team tackles. I love him there, but I’m not sure if he should be playing much on the defense going forward.

With the lack of options, however, I don’t doubt that he will be seeing time with the defense in 2018.

Drew Murtaugh

Murtaugh — a walk-on redshirt freshman — didn’t see the field this season.

Sean Coghlan

The walk-on took a redshirt in 2017.

Ayo Shogbonyo

Ayo Shogbonyo Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
12 26 7 9 1 0 1 0 1 0

Shogbonyo is a player I like quite a bit because of his potential. He didn’t see much of the field in his freshman season, but I love his size and strength.

Shogbonyo is listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, and he was a power-lifter in high school. He played both ways in high school (linebacker and offensive lineman). I think he may be a future starter at inside or strong side linebacker for the Illini.

Marc Mondesir

Marc Mondesir Defense 2017

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD INT FF FR
11 4 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0

Mondesir was primarily a special teams player in his true freshman season. He was a consensus top-50 recruit in the state of Illinois, and the defensive staff will hope Mondesir can have a great offseason to help him build on his potential.