The Illini defense has clearly lost a number of key contributors to the transfer market during this offseason. Among them are linebackers Christion Abercrombie, Julian Jones, and Tre Watson. Of those three departing linebackers, none will leave bigger shoes to fill than MLB Tre Watson.
During his 2017 campaign, Watson tallied 65 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, an interception and a fumble recovery.
To no surprise, Lovie Smith builds his defenses around turnovers. Although the obvious individual stats (interceptions, forced fumbles) are most telling in that regard, takeaways are often a team effort. For example, experienced defenders can anticipate and break up passes, which makes it easier for fellow defenders to grab them for interceptions.
Hurrying the quarterback is one of the surest ways to force bad passes, incompletions and interceptions. Tre Watson led the team last season by recording five quarterback hurries, and he broke up two passes.
Watson’s replacement at the MLB position is likely to be rising junior Dele Harding, who recorded 32 tackles through 8 games last season. Harding, a Bill Cubit recruit and former Michigan commit, spent much of his time on special teams in 2017.
Although Harding has proven himself to be a prolific tackler, he will need to improve at the skills needed to generate turnovers, as he did not record any other measured statistics in the games he played last season.
Tre Watson dictated the pace of the game when he played in 2017 by finishing third on the team in tackles and disrupting opposing run and pass offenses in a number of ways.
If one thing is for sure, Lovie and Co. will certainly miss his production in the upcoming season.