When Lovie Smith was hired as the Illinois football coach in 2016, one of the biggest questions was how his trademark “Tampa 2” defense would translate to the college game, where teams run wild with up-tempo, spread offenses.
In reality, Illinois almost never plays the Tampa 2, which features zone coverage as both safeties occupy half of the field deep down the field.
This season, Illinois has been playing nearly exclusively with a single safety deep in the middle of the field, with another safety in the box near the line of scrimmage. The Illini have played man-to-man coverage for large periods of time this season, in addition to playing Cover 3, where the two cornerbacks and one deep safety are each responsible for one-third of the field.
Outside of the middle linebacker, who is the captain of the defense, those safeties are what will determine the success of the Illinois defense.
Enter Patrick Nelson, who burst on the scene last season as a freshman and has continued his strong play in 2017. He led the Illini with 10 tackles, seven solo, and a forced fumble Friday night in a loss to Nebraska.
Nelson is the ‘strong’ safety and is an absolute beast in run coverage. He’s one of the hardest hitters in the league and has two forced fumbles this year after popping the ball loose Friday night.
After playing almost exclusively on special teams for the first two games of the season as a freshman, Nelson compiled 75 tackles on the year — third-highest on the team -- and was named to ESPN’s All-Freshman team for his efforts. The highlight of his 2016 campaign was a 16-tackle effort against the Cornhuskers.
Nelson could use improvement in his coverage skills, as he is consistently tasked with marking tight ends and slot receivers. He also occasionally sells out for big hits when simply wrapping up would be more effective. Bottom line: He’s young and will continue to get better.
Nelson fits the bill perfectly for how Illinois wants to play defensively and allows Illinois to be more forceful in run support by sneaking Nelson into the box on most plays. Pair him up with his foil, freshman Bennett Williams, who excels in pass coverage, and Lovie and Co. might have already found their safeties for the next three years.