The Illinois defense ranked 89th in defensive S&P after 2017. That number fell to 121 in 2018. That regression from the defense is quite staggering. It is very hard to fall from 89 to 121. That’s not just regression. It’s complete failure by the coaches and players.
The defensive line shares in a large portion of the blame. The defensive line went from being the best position group on the defense full of some young exciting players to the worst on the team.
Illinois did lose two key players from the line in 2017 — James Crawford and Tito Odenigbo — but what proved to be the most important factor was losing defensive line coach Mike Phair to the NFL after the season. Austin Clark was hired to replace him with his previous job on his resume being a graduate assistant at USC. Clark has helped Illinois with recruiting and has gotten Illinois some interest out in California, but he was a big step down in actual coaching experience. He’s young and he can easily develop and improve, but for a team needing to take a big step forward in 2019, they’ll need a young Austin Clark to do a better job with his players.
He played in only one game preserving his redshirt in his freshman season.
Sophomore walk-on who joined the team in September.
Julian Pearl Defense 2018
Only two games played, so the freshman kept that redshirt in tact.
Ayo Shogbonyo Defense 2018
Shogbonyo moved to defensive line from linebacker. He is the ultimate developmental player in that you don’t expect anything out of him until his 3rd or 4th season with the team. They are long shots who maybe have one or two skills you hope you can develop into great strengths while getting the rest of their game up to snuff so they can be a contributor.
Shogbonyo’s strength is, well, his strength. He was a power-lifter in high school and played soccer as well. He was a unique athlete that any coach would love to work with.
But, it was his third year this season as a redshirt sophomore, and Illinois didn’t get much out of him. There is still time for him. The fourth year can be a breakout year for players like him, but it can also be yet another year where it’s not put together and more sophomores and freshman get playing time below them. Then a player like Shogbonyo may choose to transfer as a grad-transfer after their junior season.
Jamal Milan Defense 2018
Milan had a very tough season. He is a redshirt junior, but in the eight games he played rotating in at DT, he had no tackles for a loss and struggled to make an impact. In 2016, he was seen as one of the most promising young players on the Illinois defensive line, but his production has gotten worse since then.
Lere Oladipo Defense 2018
Oladipo moved to DT this season after taking a redshirt in 2017. He played very little because he still needs to add more weight to play on the inside of the line.
Jamal Woods Defense 2018
Why did Jamal Woods have to get hurt?!? He started off the season so well! Through four games as a starting DT, he had four tackles-for-loss and three pass deflections. He was the best defensive lineman by far in those early games, but he picked up a knee injury in the Penn State game and missed the rest of the season.
On the bright side, this can be a redshirt season for him as he only played in four games and didn’t take a redshirt as a freshman. Getting a healthy Woods back will be a huge boost for this line.
Isaiah Gay Defense 2018
Gay is very undersized. He is listed at only 225, but he has a fantastic first step and can shoot off the line so quickly. He explodes off the line like a sprinter off the blocks.
The problem is that he can’t do anything else but speed rush at this point. It’s almost too good. Gay often will get up the field so quickly that he will overrun his rush and blow-by the pocket. He is then not be able to come close to turning the corner to get to the QB.
That tendency was further exploited by offensive tackles. Against Gay, they would sell out on the outside speed rush, completely taking it away at risk of giving up an inside move. Unfortunately, Gay wasn’t strong enough or experienced enough to do these counter rushes, which is why Gay regressed in his sophomore season. He is too small to stop the run and when his pass rushing didn’t prove versatile enough, he starting seeing less and less playing time.
Get this man on the Mike Tisdale diet and teach him some inside rushing moves in the offseason. He has the one great strength, but you need more than just that in the Big Ten.
Calvin Avery Defense 2018
Avery was a huge recruiting win for Illinois, but he showed why even blue-chip freshman defensive linemen usually don’t play as true freshmen. He is huge and was tough for opposing linemen to move, but on the other hand, it was tough for him to move his counterparts. He needs to get into better shape and, with his first full offseason with the program, he will. I’m excited to see what he can do moving forward.
Illinois’ other four-star DT took a redshirt. He was very highly regarded as an offensive lineman in high school as well, so there is a chance he could move to the other side of the ball, but I wouldn’t count on it for now. He came to Illinois in part because they wanted him for defense.
A 2021 defensive line led by senior Bobby Roundtree, redshirt-sophomore Verdis Brown and junior Calvin Avery has a lot of potential.
Kenyon Jackson Defense 2018
Jackson is a nice depth piece, but never quite panned into the starter I thought he may become. He played only a little bit this season, and his role may be even lesser in 2019.
Tymir Oliver Defense 2018
Oliver was okay, but you are going to have some problems in the Big Ten if your most consistent DT is just okay.
He regressed slightly from 2017. His TFL went down (4.5 compared to 2.5) as well as sacks (3 to 1). He did keep his hands active and deflect four passes which was something the defensive line actually did well in 2018. Especially the next man on the list...
Bobby Roundtree Defense 2018
Roundtree was the only defensive lineman to take a big leap forward this season. He has a fantastic motor and is relentless in pursuit of the QB. Many of his sacks were of the never-say-die, effort-style variety. It’s very easy to take plays off as a defensive end. Some of the best players, Hall of Fame quality ends were known to do this. Roundtree isn’t like that. He is always playing hard.
He led the team in TFL (12.5), sacks (7.5) and pass deflections (7). He reminds me a lot of former Illinois DE Michael Buchanan, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Patriots. IF Roundtree keeps it up and can work on his game, he will also be a draft pick, but possibly be picked a few rounds earlier than Buchanan was.
Deon Pate Defense 2018
Pate didn’t see much of the field as a redshirt freshman. He could play either strong-side defensive end or as a three-technique for Illinois, but the coaches will probably need to commit to where exactly they want to play him soon. He projects as a versatile depth piece.
Owen Carney Jr.
Owen Carney Jr. Defense 2018
Carney was given a lot more playing time this season and improved slightly over his freshman season. He would pop up with some really good plays every now and then, but struggled to make a consistent impact.
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