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2018 Illinois Football Roster Review: LBs

A solid, yet unspectacular season for the Illini linebackers.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini linebackers had a very solid season in 2018. There were some issues in coverage, but on the whole the Illinois linebackers did their jobs and were a steady presence that made tackles.

The Illinois defense still ranked near the bottom of every defensive category in college football. I think this goes to show the declining importance of linebackers to modern college defenses. They are important, but linebacker used to be a position a team could build a defense around. Now defense is mainly about two things, do you have a good defensive line and do you have a good secondary? If the answer to those questions are no, it doesn’t matter how good your linebackers are.

Gone are the days of building a defense around players like Brian Urlacher or Ray Lewis in the NFL or players like Manti Te’o or James Laurinaitis in college. Now it’s about players like Jabrill Peppers and Ed Oliver.

The best comparison would be the declining important of centers in basketball. Centers are no longer the focal point of an offense like they used to, and the centers who make the most impact now are totally different players than what we saw out of the position a decade ago.

Linebackers, like basketball centers, still have value. They aren’t quite the fullback in the NFL, but they no longer serve as foundations of a defense. The Illinois linebackers weren’t at fault for the defensive collapse in 2018, but despite their best efforts they couldn’t stop it from happening.

Del’Shawn Phillips

Del’Shawn Phillips Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
12 95 45 50 6 1.5 7 1 1 4

Phillips was the lone senior on the Illinois defense. Not just the lone senior who started or the lone senior who played.

He was the only senior on the entire defensive roster.

He led the Illini in interceptions and was tied for the lead in tackles. I have no major complaints about Phillips. He was not the fleetest of foot or the best in coverage — which opposing offenses were able to take advantage of at times — however, he was the best or second-best Illinois defender in every game. He was solid and provided some good expereince to the defense.

Milo Eifler

Eifler had to sit out this season after transferring from Washington. I’m very excited to see what Eifler can do next season where he will likely be a day one starter. He fits the mold you want of a modern-day college linebacker who has sideline to sideline speed to chase down receivers and running backs to make tackles.

Put him at WLB and let him go to work.

Dele Harding

Dele Harding Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
9 37 21 16 5 1 0 1 0 0

Harding didn’t play much. He was the No. 1 linebacker on the strongside, but with Illinois moving to a nickel formation as its base defense, Hardings started only a handful of games. He was able to make a lot of plays in his time on the field and was the best Illinois linebacker at getting into the opposing backfield to make plays.

Expect him to fill a similar role next season as the third linebacker in the Illinois 4-2-5 base defense.

James Knight

James Knight Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
7 12 10 2 0 0 0 1 0 0

Knight saw most of his action on special teams, but had a nice game against USF with six tackles and a forced fumble. He is undersized and stuck between being a linebacker and a safety. There were a few plays he played as the nickel back in more of the old Nate Bussey STAR role, and I’d like to see that a bit more possibly next season.

Jake Hansen

Jake Hansen Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
12 95 48 47 8.5 1 1 1 1 0

Jake Hansen had a decent season coming off a season-ending injury in 2017. He was second on the team in TFL, but six of those came in one game in the Week One victory over Kent State. He was making play after play in the Flashes’ backfield and was a menace on that day, but he struggled to create nearly as much havoc after that game.

The major issue for Hansen was his inability to fend off blockers. He actually tried to not engage with blockers and would instead try to run around him doing everything he could to avoid them and try to get a hand on the ball carrier, but he wasn’t quite quick enough for this strategy to work either.

It seems to be that Hansen either needs to slim down in order to gain some more quickness or bulk-up and get stronger so he can engage with and shed blockers to make plays. If he does add some strength I think he could fit in nicely to Phillips’ now open spot at MLB while Eifler slides into WLB.

That being said, Hansen is player you have to like for his hustle and effort. He made some tackles with pure will to fight to just get a hand on the ball carrier or a leg or whatever it took to get the man down. He has two more years left with the Illini.

Bobby Venegas

Walk-on who joined the team in September.

Jimmy Marchese

Jimmy Marchese Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
3 3 1 2 0 0 1 0 0 1

Marchese’s season ended early. He missed the first four games with an injury and then picked up another after only appearing in three games. The elder Marchese on the Illini has one more year to play in 2019.

Drew Murtaugh

Walk-on who appeared in two games without recording a tackle.

Khalan Tolson

Khalan Tolson Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
12 5 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 0

I was actually shocked to see that Tolson played in all 12 games as a freshman. I can’t recall ever really seeing him. He played mostly on special teams.

I liked him as a recruit and given another year or two I think he can be a solid contributor with starter upside for Illinois.

Alec McEachern

Alec McEachern Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
4 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0

Second-year walk-on who saw time in four games.

Jacob Hollins

Jacob Hollins Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
8 7 2 5 0.5 0 0 0 0 0

Again, like Tolson, Hollins played mostly on special teams in his true freshman season.

Sean Coghlan

The second-year walk-on saw action in four games.

Marc Mondesir

Marc Mondesir Defense 2018

Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
Games Played Tackles UA A TFL Sacks PD FF FR INT
10 3 3 0 1 1 0 0 0 0

Mondesir played mostly on special teams but he did pick up a sack in the win against Minnesota.

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