As we wrap up Stock & Shop, the trends we’ve seen throughout are punctuated in the secondary. High-end young talent appears early in the depth chart while questions and recruiting hangovers appear deeper down. What we can highlight for this edition, though, are the evaluations that have been made to find the gems of last year and the incoming freshmen for this 2018 season.
Early in last year’s training camp, those fortunate enough to live in the Champaign area began praising the ability of Bennett Williams. Because Illini Nation is traditionally treated to “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” every offseason, there was reason to be skeptical, but then Williams blossomed into a freshman All-American and the secondary foundation started to take shape. Cornerbacks Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs were both 3-stars out of high school and being thrown into the starting lineup against grown men on the edge, and much like Bennett Williams we saw very good young players and future studs.
That trio has 9 years of future eligibility, and is joined by Stanley Green, a hard-hitting safety with a flair for ejection penalties, and Cam Watkins, a very underrated man in the slot from Beckman’s last class.
Lovie Smith predicates his defense on creating turnovers and forcing offenses to methodically move the ball without allowing a big play. A gigantic piece to that puzzle is having a secondary that’s good enough to give the quarterback an extra .5 seconds of pause, allowing the edge rushers to close in, and not allow chunk plays when there are completions. That requires both the ability to cover men, or space, and then have the instincts and ability to take down a ballcarrier.
Williams, Hobbs and Adams are certainly standouts in that concept but need more help from the incoming class. A lot like Bennett from last year, the Champaign media is buzzing about incoming freshman Jartavius Martin from Florida playing corner or safety. He was a guy I specifically liked on film as well, so I’m happy it’s all coming to fruition.
Classmates Ron Hardy, Kerby Joseph and Sydney Brown also join the 2018 Illini defensive back class from Florida. And what does Florida do better than everyone else? Speed, baby! I’m especially high on Sydney Brown turning into a very good safety on this team. Dylan Wyatt and Delano Ware are coming from Bennett’s coast, and Nick Walker is making a short trip from St. Louis, all to join the 2018 Illinois defensive backfield.
The 2019 class began with the highest-rated recruit to join the defensive backfield since…Well, maybe ever. Marquez Beason from Texas is a Top-100 corner who is hyped up nationally as one of the best athletes in the country, and has proved his worth at every camp he’s attended this summer. Beason is a start-from-day-one type of kid no matter who else is in front of him — he’s that good. The less-heralded Joseph Thompson has that toughness that Lovie wants from his last line of defense. If it’s one-on-one with a 215-pound tailback running a 4.4, are you going to bring him down or dive at his ankles for the cameras? Thompson is going to drive and wrap up.
Last year’s only joy came from watching the freshmen show signs of greatness. This year should provide a couple more wins, especially if the incoming freshmen have similar impacts and the sophomores take leaps.