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Lovie Smith will always be connected to his cover two zone defense in the NFL the two fantastic linebackers he helped turn into pro-bowlers while with the Bears, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The Illini will hope that he can work his magic on the young group of linebackers this season and turn this unit into a strength for the defense.
Julian Jones - #2, JR, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs
Jones started in two of the final three contest for Illinois in 2016 after primarily being a special teams player. He will continue to be a key player for the Illini on special teams, but he will play a role in the defense, especially with Jake Hansen going down with a knee injury.
Dale Harding - #9, SO, 6’ 1”, 235 lbs
Harding played in 9 games last season before missing the last three due to injury, and he played well for true freshman. He will serve as a backup ILB for the Illini and should see the field more in his sophomore season.
Justice WIlliams - #32, SO, 6’ 3”, 220 lbs
Williams started the Iowa game last season where he recorded six tackles with one for a loss. He was primarily a special teams player, but will be fighting with all the other players for playing time behind the starters.
Tré Watson - #33, JR, 6’ 2”, 235 lbs
Watson is the only returning starter for the Illini at LB. He had a very good sophomore season for Illinois after taking over starting duties during Big Ten play. He was tied for the conference lead in tackles during Big Ten play with 93. He will be the anchor for the middle of the Illini defense this season, and will hopefully take on a leadership role that this young defense desperately will need.
Jake Hansen - #35, SO, 6’ 2”, 230 lbs
Hansen played in all 12 games as a true freshman, and he was starting to get more playing time with the defense.
Hansen was on his way to earning a starting spot at linebacker, but that all changed when he suffered a knee injury during practice this week. His specific injury has yet to be announced, but the team has said it will require surgery, which makes it sound like the true sophomore will be out for the season. If so, he will come back with three years of eligibility left to play with in 2018.
Jimmy Marchese - #41, SO, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs
Marchese is a walk-on who primarily plays on special teams.
Drew Murtaugh - #44, R-FR, 6’ 3”, 225 lbs
A walk-on whose Father Joe Murtaugh played for Illinois Baseball from 1985-88.
Ayo Shogbonyo - #52, R-FR, 6’ 2”, 230 lbs
Shogbonyo redshirted last season after committing to Illinois over offers from Army and UTEP. He was a powerlifter in High School, while also participating in track, soccer, and football.
Del’Shawn Phillips - #3, JR, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs, Garden City C.C. (Kansas)
Phillips was one of the highest rated JUCO recruits in the nation. He was rated the 14th-best player overall by Scout, and the 19th by 247. He was also rated the second-best JUCO linebacker by 237, and third by ESPN. This is a player that Illinois will be looking to start from day one for a young linebacking corps.
He helped lead Garden City to a Junior College National Championship in 2016, and he will a player that Illinois will be looking to start from day one for a young linebacking corps. Phillips will man one of the outside linebacker positions for the Illini.
Phillips was a do it all player for Garden City. He recorded 95 tackles, 12.5 TFL, two sacks, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions in 2016 serving as the captain for the defense.
Sean Coghlan - #51, FR, 6’ 0”, 215 lbs, Chicago, Ill.
A walk-on out of St. Rita High School.
Marc Mondesir - #54, FR, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs, Chicago, Ill.
Mondesir also comes from St. Rita High School and was a three star recruit according to 247 and Scout. He could possibly be looking at a redshirt, but Illinois needs all the depth it can have on defense.
While Illinois may list their base defense as a 4-3, they will be playing in nickel defense most of the time. The two main starters are intact with Del’Shawn Phillips and Tre Watson, who form a nice linebacker duo for Illinois that should pile up the tackles. With a young defensive line ahead of them, they will be lean upon heavily, and will need to be consistent for Illinois to be successful on defense.
Behind them are some young players who will need to step up at some point this year. We will see if they are up to the task of not only handling the run, but handling the zone coverage assignments that are key to a Lovie Smith defense.