Everything I said about feeling great about the depth on the defensive line can be reversed for linebackers. The depth is very thin. Losing Tre Watson to a transfer is a big blow to this defense.
Sidenote: Hey, Shammond Cooper, look at all this playing time!
Now if I was forced to pick a position on a football team to be thin on the depth chart at, it would be linebacker. LBs are less important to defenses today than in the past due to the wide use of spread offenses.
It is because of this lack of depth that Illinois is moving to nickel as a base defense. Now for all intents and purposes, this was already the case. Illinois fielded a nickel defense for the majority of plays in 2017, but the fact that the coaching staff has now embraced nickel as a base enough to declare it shows where college football defenses have moved.
Illinois isn’t very aggressive with its linebackers. They will almost always play a read and react game and play almost exclusively zone coverage in pass protection. It’s the style that Lovie Smith has used for years. It’s no longer Tampa-2, but it’s the same ‘bend but don’t break’ principles.
You can get away without having expectations for linebackers with this style and have a decent defense. The defensive line and secondary are much more important, however, and Illinois will need to get more athletic and fast at linebacker and add more depth if this defense is going to become good/great.
Del’Shawn Phillips - #3, SR, 6’ 2”, 230 lbs
Phillips is the lone senior on the defense. Yes, that’s right. Illinois only has one senior on the entire defense. No walk-on seniors. No senior we forgot about because they don’t play much. It’s only Phillips.
In his one season so far with Illinois, Phillips proved to be a solid starter. He is a steady, but limited presence. He doesn’t have the speed and quickness that you would ideally want, but he makes few mistakes and tackles well. There are no real complaints to have about him. He is as solid as they come, even if he isn’t spectacular.
He’ll be the starting MLB without a doubt.
Milo Eifler - #5, SO, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs
Speaking of needing to add more athleticism at linebacker, Illinois did just that with Milo Eifler coming to Illinois as a transfer from Washington. He will have to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. He will have two years left to play starting in 2019.
Illinois’ defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson was Eifler’s head coach in high school in Oakland, California, which certainly played a part in his decision to wear the orange and blue.
Eifler has a lot of raw talent and will have a year to work with Nickerson and other coaches to hone his game and be ready to take over for Del’Shawn Phillips at middle linebacker in 2019 — or WLB if a certain Trinity Catholic recruit chooses Illinois...
Dele Harding - #9, JR, 6’ 1”, 230 lbs
Harding played in eight games and started in five of those last season. He will be in the mix for playing time on the defense and will likely be the SLB when Illinois uses that formation, but given the move to a base nickel, he will serve as the main backup linebacker.
James Knight - #10, SO, 5’ 10”, 215 lbs
Knight played in every game in his true freshman season, starting one. He played mostly special teams, but didn’t make a large impact with only three tackles. He will likely have a special teams role again in 2018.
Jake Hansen - #35, SO, 6’ 1”, 230 lbs
Hansen was getting huge praise from the coaching staff last offseason entering his sophomore season and it seemed he was primed to see a lot of playing time. Unfortunately, he suffered an ACL tear in camp and missed the entire season. He will still have three years of eligibility after taking a redshirt.
Hansen again is getting praise from coaches, so much so that it’s almost a given he’ll be starting. It’s hard to predict how he’ll play. He didn’t see much action in his freshman season and coming off an ACL tear is always tough unless you are Adrian Peterson.
The former top-100 LB recruit will have his shot to show the Big Ten what he has.
Jimmy Marchese - #41, JR, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs
Marchese played a lot more on the defense than was anticipated last season for a walk-on due to injuries and suspensions. He struggled with the speed of the game a bit, but he did enough to earn a scholarship from the coaching staff.
He led Illinois in special teams tackles and he will be a key player there again while providing some depth for the defense.
Drew Murtaugh - #44, SO, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs
Murtaugh is a third year walk-on from Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Khalan Tolson - #45, FR, 6’ 0”, 220 lbs
Tolson is a true-freshman out of St. Petersburg, Florida, and I think he has a lot of potential. When he committed to Illinois, I loved what I saw in his highlight tape. Everything I saw was what you want out of modern day college football outside linebackers. He has good speed from sideline to sideline and good coverage instincts.
Ten to 15 years ago, a player like this would be a run-stuffing safety, but now they are a perfect fit at linebacker against offenses who love to use all 53 yards available from east to west.
Tolson will play this year, and may end up as a starter at the end of the season depending on how players ahead of him perform.
Alec McEachern - #46, R-FR, 6’ 1”, 225 lbs
Second-year walk-on from Plainfield, Illinois.
Jacob Hollins - #47, FR, 6’ 2”, 220 lbs
Hollins is a freshman out of Fresno, California who held offers from hometown team Fresno State, as well as Idaho, but choose to come to Illinois. I think he will most likely take a redshirt, unless Illinois needs him to play special teams.
Sean Coghlan - #51, R-FR, 6’ 0”, 220 lbs
Second-year walk-on from Chicago.
Projected Depth Chart
- Del’Shawn Phillips
- Dele Harding
- Jacob Hollins
- Jake Hansen
- Khalan Tolson
- Jimmy Marchese