Of all the posistion groups, I am by far the most optimistic about the future for the defensive line. This is the one posistion I can reasonably say has multiple NFL prospects. This is also a group with some better veteran expereince than others, but also some positive youth. Lovie Smith and his staff are building up great depth here as well.
However, that optimism is looking at the potential of this group going into 2019 and 2020. This year, this group is still young and a posistion depending on players growing and developing. Some players will make the jumps we expect and some may even perform above expectations, but others will struggle a bit. There will be mistakes and bad games from the young players. I don’t think this is the year we look at the Illini defensive line and say it is a major strength of the team.
But in 2019 and 2020? Absolutely.
Ezekiel Holmes - #33, FR, 6’ 3”, 225 lbs
Holmes comes to Illinois out of Wichita Falls, Texas where he was second-team all-state and held offers from Washington State and Air Force. He could potentially see some time, but it’s likely this is a redshirt season.
Julian Pearl - #48, FR, 6’ 6”, 250 lbs
Pearl is a freshman out of Danville, Illinois. He was the highest ranked player in the recruiting class from the state of Illinois by 247Sports (6th).
He played offensive tackle in high school as well, and like Kendrick Green could be a candidate to move to that side of the ball, especially if Illinois isn’t able to recruit enough offensive linemen in 2019.
But for now, expect him to take a redshirt this season.
Ayo Shogbonyo - #52, SO, 6’ 2”, 240 lbs
Shogbonyo moved to defensive end from linebacker this offseason. I love that he played soccer and powerlifted in high school. Agility and strength.
He saw the field sparingly in his redshirt freshman season. He was second on the team in special teams tackles.
This is the exact kind of guy that has all the athletic ability you want and could have a breakout season, but given the guys ahead of him, that may have to wait for another year.
Marc Mondesir - #54, SO, 6’ 2”, 235 lbs
Marc Mondesir Defense
Another linebacker who is moving to defensive end, Mondesir also saw most of his playing time on special teams his freshman season. Given the lack of depth at linebacker, I found it curious that Mondesir was moved.
I’m not sure we will see much of Mondesir in 2018, but if there are injuries ahead of him or poor play, he could make his way into the rotation alongside his special teams work.
Jamal Milan - #55, JR, 6’ 3”, 305
Jamal Milan Defense
Milan blocked the field goal that sealed the win over Ball State last season. He played in 10 games and started six, and played ok. He is a solid player and will be the starting 1-tech DT, but he will have plenty of players behind him pushing him.
Lere Oladipo- #90, R-Fr, 6’ 3”, 275 lbs
Oladipo was the most surprising redshirt for me last season. I thought he has the size to play right away at defensive end. The coaches thought differently, and have now moved the former consensus top-20 recruit from Illinois to defensive tackle.
Reports say he has had some very bright moments in training camp. He is solidly in the second-team for now behind Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan, and he will see plenty of playing time. Oladipo is one of Illinois’ biggest breakout candidates.
Jamal Woods - #91, SO, 6’ 2”, 265 lbs
Jamal Woods Defense
Jamal Woods has a sneakily good true-freshman season ending in being named an honorable mention to the freshman All-Big Ten team. He started four games and had 2.5 tackles for a loss against Indiana.
He will split time with Bobby Roundtree on the strongside, and could with his size move inside for a few plays a game.
Isaiah Gay - #92, SO, 6’ 3”, 225 lbs
Isaiah Gay Defense
Gay started off last season very well — sack against Ball State and a blocked kick against South Florida — but struggled against Big Ten opposition given his size disadvantage. He put on some more weight in the off-season in hopes to combat that, but 225 pounds is still well below average for the posistion.
Because of the smaller size though, Gay has the best first-step of all the Illini pass rushers. It’s hard to see him getting much playing time on early down especially against run-heavy opponent, but Gay will be a must have for passing downs.
Calvin Avery - #93, FR, 6’ 3”, 330 lbs
Calvin Avery out of Dallas was the first blue-chip recruit for Lovie Smith. A lot of people speculated that Avery might decommit after choosing Illinois early, but he stuck with the Illini due to the greater potential of early playing time.
Avery is already huge, but he may not be quite up to the conditioning level needed for Big Ten play just yet. Illinois won’t be rushed to play him as a freshman like they were last season along the defensive line. He will probably see the field early against the weaker teams on Illinois schedule, but he could then not see the field later into the Big Ten schedule to preserve his redshirt.
Avery has everything you could want to have out of a nose tackle, and Illinois fans should be excited for his future, and any player’s future who had an offer list that included Notre Dame, Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas, and USC among others.
But a blue-chip recruit that Illinois may be able to redshirt? Man, it’s great to have actual depth at a posistion again.
Verdis Brown - #94, FR, 6’ 2”, 325 lbs
Illinois not only brought in one, but two blue-chip defensive tackle recruits. Verdis Brown is from Chicago but played his high school football at the blue-chip factory down in Florida known as the IMG Academy.
His offer list was even better than Avery’s — Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee among others. Part of those offers though came because Brown was ranked as a top-five center recruit, but it appears he wanted to play defense and Illinois will give him that shot.
Avery picking number 93 (Corey Liuget) and Brown 94 (Akeem Spence) reminds me of the last good DT duo that the Illini had. Both of these guys also have NFL potential like draft picks Spence and Liuget.
Like Avery, Illinois won’t need to play Verdis Brown and could be able to preserve his redshirt. Depth, it’s a wonderful thing.
Kenyon Jackson - #95, JR, 6’ 0”, 290 lbs
Kenyon Jackson Defense
I expected more out of Jackson’s sophomore season. The path seemed clear for him to become a starter, but Tymir Oliver took on that role.
Kenyon Jackson will be seeing a lot of playing time as the third DT this year, and if Oliver or Milan struggle, Jackson may be able to fight his way back into the starting lineup.
Tymir Oliver - #96, JR, 6’ 4”, 290 lbs
Tymir Oliver Defense
Oliver went from only recording three tackle assists his freshman year to being the best interior defensive lineman for the Illini and starting 10 games in his sophomore season.
He was a team captain as a sophomore and will be counted on to be the leader for this young unit as well as continue to improve his game for his final two seasons.
Bobby Roundtree - #97, SO, 6’ 5”, 255 lbs
Bobby Roundtree Defense
Roundtree was the best defensive lineman for the Illini last season as a true-freshman. He caused the most havoc of any player on the line. He was tied was the lead in sacks and also showed some wisdom beyond his year in breaking up three passes.
He slowed down once Illinois started playing Big Ten opposition last year, and the clear goal this year is to step up his play so he can continue to be an effective pass rusher and run stopper against the Wisconsins and Nebrakas of the world.
I have high hopes for him this season.
Deon Pate - #98, R-FR, 6’ 2”, 280 lbs
Pate took a redshirt last season. He had 15 sacks as a senior in high school as a defensive end, but will mostly play 3-tech for Illinois. I’m not sure how much playing time he will see, but Lovie Smith like to use many defensive lineman every game.
Owen Carney Jr - #99, SO, 6’ 3”, 255 lbs
Owen Carney Jr. Defense
Carney played in 10 games, but didn’t make a big impact for Illinois last season. However, reports out of training camp are that he is looking much improved this season. Carney is up to 255 pounds which will help against physical Big Ten linemen, and for that reason I think Carney is going to be the “starter” on the weak-side over the undersized Isaiah Gay. Carney’s has a more well-rounded game, and while his ceiling may not be as high as Gay’s especially when it comes to pass rushing, he is the best option to start right now.
Projected Depth Chart
One thing to keep in mind is that in modern day football, whoever starts on the defensive line doesn’t matter too much. Almost every team uses a heavy rotation of players, and Lovie Smith is included in that. Illinois has the depth to do it too and keep players fresh and able to give full effort on every play.
So even with Owen Carney Jr listed as my projected “starter” here, I expect he and his “backup” Isaiah Gay will see a pretty similar amount of snaps this season for the Illinois defense.
- Owen Carney Jr.
- Isaiah Gay
- Ayo Shogbonyo
- Ezequiel Holmes
- Jamal Milan
- Kenyon Jackson
- Calvin Avery
- Tymir Oliver
- Lere Oladipo
- Deon Pate
- Verdis Brown
- Bobby Roundtree
- Jamal Woods
- Julian Pearl