To see all previous roster breakdowns, click here.
For the last roster review post it’s time to look at the defensive backs. DBs are growing more important every year. While defenses are often built along the front lines, truly dominate units win with their defensive backs. Illinois is very young at this posistion, and they will be looking to grow to be a strength for the Illini defense in a few years.
Jaylen Dunlap - #1, SR, 6’ 1”, 190 lbs
Dunlap has had a solid career for the Illini, and is the most experienced player on the defense. In three seasons he has played in 37 games and been a consistent contributor. Despite his good play at CB, he has yet to grab an interception in his Illinois career. Let’s hope he can make up for that in a big way for his Senior season.
Stanley Green - #7, SO, 5’ 11”, 195 lbs
Green started seven games as a True Freshman, and was 5th on the team in total tackles with 62. He should be in the starting lineup again this season and will look to continue improving his game from his debut season.
Chris James - #12, JR, 5’ 11”, 195 lbs
James was a rotation player for Illinois last year. He appeared in all 12 games and made 4 starts early on. He will be one of the top options for Illinois at the nickel and the dime spots.
Harvey Clayton Jr. - #20, R-FR, 6’ 2”, 215 lbs
The safety was redshirted last season. His father played defensive back at Florida State before spending five years in the NFL. He has great size and could be a big special teams player early on.
Patrick Nelson - #21, SO, 6’ 2”, 210 lbs
After tearing his ACL in 2015, Nelson came back strong in 2016. He was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. He finished with 75 tackles, good for third on the defense. He has dealt with some injuries during the offseason, but it doesn’t look like anything serious. He will be starting at safety.
Frank Sumpter - #23, SO, 5’ 10”, 185 lbs
Sumpter comes from the same Cleveland, Ohio High School (Glenville) as former Illinois players V'Angelo Bentley and Justin Hardee. He was a special teams contributor who started two games at corner for the Illini in 2016. He should be in the mix for more playing time.
Evan Jones - #26, R-FR, 6’ 2”, 190 lbs
Jones took a redshirt last season. He is a good athlete who had a very successful track career in Georgia.
Ahmari Hayes - #27, SR, 6’ 3”, 190 lbs
In his first year for Illinois as a JUCO transfer, Hayes was mostly a contributor on special teams. He and Dunlap are the only seniors in the Illinois secondary.
Julian Hylton - #30, JR, 6’ 1”, 205 lbs
Hylton was in the starting lineup early last season but was eventually moved to a backup role. He will be a good depth player this season.
Cameron Watkins - #31, SO, 6’ 0”, 190 lbs
Watkins will be in the mix to be the first option as the nickel CB. He had three pass breakups in three starts last season, and the speedy Watkins will be looking for a bigger role.
Zac Holman - #38, JR, 6’ 1”, 190 lbs
Holman joined the team as a walk-on in 2016. He is originally from Cronulla, Australia and is a former rugby player.
Bennett Williams - #4, FR, 6’ 0”, 195 lbs, Campbell, Calif.
The Illini beat out a handful of Mountain West teams to get Williams. He was a three star recruit. He has had a great camp so far for Illinois, and should see some solid game time.
Tony Adams - #6, FR, 6’ 0”, 190 lbs, Belleville, Ill.
Adams played both WR and DB in High School, but he will play defense for the Orange and Blue. Illinois beat out Missouri to sign Adams. He may eventually play himself into a starting spot at CB this year. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see him as a starter week one with how young the defense is.
Have I mentioned how young the defense is? Because it’s very young.
Nate Hobbs - #8, FR, 6’ 0”, 180 lbs, Louisville, Ky.
Hobbs had strong interest from Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky, but came to Illinois with his first power five offer. He is a player with decent size that the coaching staff will hopefully be able to develop.
James Knight - #10, FR, 5’ 10”, 205 lbs, East St. Louis, Ill.
Knight played a hybrid role as both a linebacker and DB in High School. He could end up at either spot for the Illini if the coaching staff decides to make him put on weight. He may be a good candidate to play in a STAR linebacker role if Lovie Smith decides to incorporate the role into the defense.
Dawson DeGroot - #24, 6’ 1”, 185 lbs, Ft. Myers, Fla.
DeGroot was originally committed to FIU, but flipped to the Illini late in the recruiting process. He will be in the mix at safety.
Nolan Bernat - #28, 5-10, 190 lbs, College of DuPage
Bernat was a preferred walk-on after spending one year in JUCO.
Michael Marchese - #42, FR, 6’ 3”, 190 lbs, Vernon Hills, Ill.
Michael is a walk-on and is the younger brother of Illinois linebacker Jim Marchese. Somehow his twin brother, Henry, decided to go to Iowa instead of joining his brothers at Illinois. What a shame.
The Big Ten roots run even deeper in this family. Their Father, John Marchese played at Iowa and was a member of the 1985 Rose Bowl team, the oldest brother Joe just graduated from Maryland.
Alex McEachern - #46, FR, 6’ 1”, 200 lbs, Plainfield, Ill.
McEachern is a walk-on who joined the team during Spring Ball.
With nine freshman, and five sophomores, this is a unit that will experience growing pains in 2017. They do return both starting safeties, and senior Jaylen Dunlap, which is helpful as the team transitions to a more zone-based defensive scheme.
While playing so many young players could hurt this unit some in 2017, it could pay off huge for Illinois in a couple of years when they could have one of the most experienced units in the Big Ten.