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The Heart of the Defense: Del’Shawn Phillips

The junior linebacker led the Illini in tackles in 2017.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Contrary to his predecessors, Lovie Smith has shown a lack of interest in recruiting JUCO or grad-transfer players. One of the few exceptions on last year’s roster was JUCO LB Del’Shawn Phillips.

Phillips was the only JUCO to make it to campus as part of the 2017 recruiting class, which was otherwise filled entirely with true freshmen. On the field, Phillips proved to be the most capable Illini defender over the course of the season, as he led the team with 85 tackles, including 4.0 TFLs.

His ability to read offensive plays and react to them quickly enables him to make big stops on defense:

Younger linebackers may take a few fractions of a second longer to recognize whether a play is a run, pass or play action pass and that extra time equates to more yards surrendered. Phillips has both the play recognition ability and the speed to track down opposing ballcarriers without giving up as many yards.

Phillips is going to play a key role in the linebacker corps in 2018, as that position was hit particularly hard by the transfers of other experienced players like Tre Watson and Julian Jones. As one of the few seniors on a team that will be filled with freshmen and sophomores next season, Phillips will be expected to again be a leader on the Illini defense in 2018, and that should be no problem at all for the talented linebacker.