When your head coach notably launched the careers of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and your defensive coordinator is a 5-time Pro Bowl linebacker, you’d figure bringing in playmakers at the second level would be the easiest recruiting trick going.
Several marquee linebacking misses and a couple experienced transfers this past offseason have put the current stable in a precarious position. The 2018 year has a lot riding on health, and 2019 and beyond dependent on turning some tides. Lovie’s defense, and good college defenses in general, need their linebackers to be stout enough to make plays against the run, but athletic enough to make plays against much quicker players in space. Illinois needs more hybrids and less either-ors.
Del’Shawn Phillips came on really late last year, and now should be primed for a nice senior season making plays in Hardy Nickerson’s defense. Phillips was a step slow early in training camp, but had moments during the season that proved he shook the rust off in August and September. Besides Phillips, though, not too much is known about the other linebacking regulars.
The staff absolutely loves presumed starter Jake Hansen, but he’s coming off an ACL tear. Dele Harding is a solid tackler in the middle but hasn’t shown the speed or fluidity to play outside and cover backs or space. James Knight hits like a truck but is small for the position. Marc Mondesir spent a redshirt year packing muscle onto a slight frame and the walk-ons have found new weird criminal hobbies in their spare time.
The skeleton crew on campus could have really been bolstered by Ayodele Adeoye (Texas) or Merlin Robertson (Arizona State), but alas, recruiting doesn’t always make sense.
And sometimes it does.
Already on campus are 2018 prospects Khalan Tolson and Jacob Hollins, and I like Tolson for one of the impact freshmen from the class. Although, like Knight, he’s a little on the shorter side, and he’s a compact 220 pounds and has honed his skills chasing people down in southern Florida. He’s fast and he arrives at the ball carrier with sudden violence. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to be the third backer next to Phillips and Hansen against Kent State.
As it comes to stocking future linebacking corps with talent, I’m glad this version of Stock & Shop came when it did, because Illinois just picked up their most talented linebacker commit of the Lovie era. Washington transfer Camilo Eifler was a Top-300 prospect out of high school in California, and joined one of the most talented defenses in the country. After two seasons he’s decided opportunity is more easily seen in Champaign, and his talents are surely needed. If nothing else, Eifler adds raw athleticism to a group that sorely needed it, and a coaching staff that will know how to best mold it.
Similarly, Corey Patterson and Hardy Nickerson have their sights set on Trinity Catholic’s Shammond Cooper in St. Louis. By now, you know about Trinity Catholic and The Movement, and Shammond Cooper is now the biggest fish left in the sea for Illinois’ class of 2019. If Patterson can leverage Isaiah Williams and Bryce Childress to also land Cooper, Josh Whitman will be doing back flips through his construction sites.