If the Lovie Smith era goes down as a success, it’ll be because of the defensive line. As the Great Football Experiment is playing out before us, Illinois fans have front row seats to how far behind the rest of the conference they truly were at the end of the Beckman/Cubit era. But unlike any other position group, a defensive line can mask the shortcomings around it and set a tone for the program as it continues to find its identity.
With each Stock and Shop we see similarities. Some young bright spots in line for big minutes and impactful roles; some kids coming in with bright futures but a frighteningly thin depth chart; and little room for error. Along the defensive line, we’re starting to see glimpses of a healthy future. There isn’t a senior in the group, but experience blends with talented youth on the interior, and quick twitchy length is blooming on the ends.
The Fighting Illini interior has a trio of juniors that have been through the ringer in Jamal Milan, Kenyon Jackson and Tymir Oliver. Milan seems like he’s been here since the Sugar Bowl team but is the most versatile of the trio, equally adept stuffing the run or pressing the pocket at 305 pounds. Oliver was one of the pleasant surprises of last season, finding his niche and becoming one of the better players on the defense. Jackson is smaller in stature, but built like a beer keg, he uses his natural leverage to ruin plays in the backfield as part of the rotation.
The crown jewels of the 2018 recruiting class will both fill the Illini interior for years to come. Massive freshmen Calvin Avery (6-2, 330) and Verdis Brown (6-3, 325) were offered by everybody as prep stars, and bring a level of talent to the line that hasn’t existed since Zook brought in Corey Liuget and Josh Brent.
On the edges, we get treated to seeing the progress a spring and summer with Joey Boese can make. Freshmen Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney showed flashes of potential in their first seasons, but it’s unrealistic to ask any true freshman not named Bosa to go out there and get the better of seasoned Big Ten tackles. Improved strength and technique are going to do wonders for the Illinois pass rush, which was stymied for most of the season. The addition of highly recruited Lere Oladipo to the group adds another dimension — he is best equipped to hold the edge against teams like Iowa and Wisconsin.
Incoming freshmen Ezekiel Holmes and Julian Pearl look more like Tevian Jones (basketball) than they do Bobby Roundtree, but that’s what Lovie Smith is looking for from high school defensive ends. He feels he can take a fluid 6-foot-6 athlete, put 35 good pounds on him, and teach him to fly off the edge and cause terror. That’s a solid plan to me.
In the class of 2019, Illinois needs to bring in a few more defensive ends. And while they’re relatively set at defensive tackle, they wouldn’t say ”No” to anyone that matches Avery or Brown’s talent.
Keith Randolph and Moses Okpala are local guys that resemble Kipper Nichols, so they’re perfect examples of what Lovie is looking for at defensive end. Both are currently rated as 3-star prospects, but both would be very high on the staff’s wish list, and hopefully they can close before more programs get a look at the stature of either.
As for standout defensive tackles, Jacob Bandes is a top-100 player from California with ties to Hardy Nickerson. He’s set to officially visit Illinois in October, but, we’ll see how that plays out when it’s time. October and Illinois is a long way away for a prospect with offers from every blue blood on the West Coast.
The 2018 season should be a huge step in the right direction for the defensive line. Suddenly not outmatched by talent and experience, they should decidedly get the better of the patsies on the schedule, and start to go toe-to-toe with their conference rivals. And 2019? Oh, baby!