If you’re a big enough college football fan to follow recruiting every day of the year, track the physical development of current players and dissect a roster’s design beyond the periphery, you might be crazy, but you also might discover layers of enjoyment that supercede wins and losses. If you are that person (a.k.a a nutcase), you will find that Jaylen Dunlap is a rare and tremendously rewarding player.
At first, Dunlap was a two-star prospect without another Power Five offer (besides Illinois) and maybe even without a recruiting chip to try and lure his friend and teammate Laquan Treadwell. Then the skinny freshman was thrown to the wolves of the Big Ten Conference. Legions of powerfully built receivers capable of running by or through most defensive backs. And Dunlap didn’t blink. Not only didn’t he blink, but his slim-bodied aggression on the line and in-run support made you jump up from your couch and shout. Fast forward four years (including an injury waiver in 2014) and Dunlap is arguably Illinois’s best player and NFL prospect. The years of weight room dedication have constructed a prototypical next-level cornerback body (think Richard Sherman). And if recent reports are to be believed, Dunlap was tied with Mike Dudek at the head of class in off-season 40 tests ($$$$$$$$).
This season will see Dunlap mostly left on an island and ignored by both Lovie Smith’s defense and opposing offenses alike. Lovie trusts his rangy senior to lock down his man and his side of the defensive backfield, and opposing teams who would much rather run and throw at freshman Tony Adams or Nate Hobbs playing CB2. But for those who remember dominant cornerbacks of the past, this is an incredible advantage for a defense, especially one that prioritizes pass rush and turnovers.
While Dunlap is rendering the other team's best wide receiver a pretty decoy, the young defensive line has an extra half second to get to the quarterback. Teams that stay away from running the edge with Dunlap in support grant Hardy Nickerson the ability to shade his linebackers towards the other side of the formation. And while Pat Nelson is a stud, and all reports of Stan Green and Bennett Williams are positive, they’ve still got two years of experience between the three of them -- and shifting your eyes to the other ¾ of the field is invaluable in reaction time. In summation, having a stud corner is a very good thing for a young defense. It’s a really good thing.
For those who are into this -- and by that I mean actually really watched seven minutes of a 2-star player’s highlight film -- Jaylen Dunlap is going to be Bill-Walton-commentating-for-UCLA levels of joy for you this year.