In modern football, having a good secondary is a must-have to have an effective defense. The Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll built the best defense in the NFL and won a Super Bowl by focusing on building the secondary. Nick Saban, an ex-secondary coach in his own right, has done the same at Alabama in college.
Sure, Bama has had amazing defensive fronts and linebackers, but it’s the secondary that has made the Crimson Tide so lethal on defense. Alabama can shut down a lot of the most effective plays out of spread formations without much difficulty.
Improving the secondary has been a key area of focus for Lovie Smith, and this is the position — outside of offensive line — where the 2017 youth movement was most apparent. Tony Adams, Nate Hobbs, and Bennett Williams all saw significant playing time. With so many freshman playing, there were many ‘freshman mistakes’ from the secondary.
Those mistakes need to be cut down this season, and they likely will. The Illini should see an improve secondary and an improved defense, but Illinois may need this secondary to become a good or even great secondary if they want to become a consistent team in the Big Ten.
Bennett Williams - #4, SO, 6’ 0”, 205 lbs
Williams came out of nowhere and became a Freshman All-American. Williams was a three-star recruit without many offers. Illinois was his only Power Five offer.
Williams was effective for Illinois as the low-safety in the cover-three or even as the ‘centerfielder’ in that same concept. He reads plays very well and this helps make up for him not having elite athletic ability for a safety.
He led Illinois with three interceptions. He was fifth on the team in total tackles with 64. It was an ideal start to Bennett Williams’ career.
However, he still has areas to improve. He was ejected once for targeting against Nebraska and would sometimes take bad angles on tackles. However, if he can fix those issues and continue to improve on his playmaking, Illinois may have one of the better safeties in the conference for the next few seasons.
Tony Adams - #6, SO, 6’ 0”, 190 lbs
Adams played in five games, starting two, but missed the last seven games of the season with a shoulder injury. He recorded one sack and one interception while showing some promising flashes.
He played both nickel and corner last season, and that will probably be the case as well in 2018. He will probably start on the inside with Cameron Watkins and Nate Hobbs manning the outside corner spots.
There are some concerns to have about his health as he also missed his senior year of high school with a torn ACL. If he can stay healthy, he should be a solid starter for Illinois.
Stanley Green - #7, JR, 5’ 11”, 200 lbs
There is a lot to like about Stanley Green’s game. He was an all Big Ten honorable mention last season. He forced three fumbles, and was second on the team in tackles. He is a physical hard-hitting presence in the secondary.
But...he needs to stop hitting players in the head. Like really. He was only ejected once for targeting in 2017, however there was a targeting call that he was lucky to have overturned against against Purdue — I seriously don’t know how that was overturned.
Targeting is a tough penalty for defenders to adjust to. I understand that. The hits that are made in these situations used to be celebrated heavily and adored by fans, media, and coaches.
At the same time though, maybe the focus for us is too much on Green and his targeting calls and not his good play on the field. He is a good safety on his day. He won’t provide that much in coverage, but he makes tackles and is a physical presence. He will be the elder statesman of the Illini secondary and should be a decent starter.
Just stop hitting people with your helmet, please.
Nate Hobbs - #8, SO, 6’ 0”, 185 lbs
Hobbs played in every game and started in 10 in his true freshman season with Illinois. He led Illinois in defensive snaps as well, which shows the confidence that the Illini coaches placed in him.
I think he showed he can be a good cover corner who will always challenge the receiver already in the early stages of his career. That should continue and he will hopefully improve with age and experience.
Delano Ware - #15, FR, 6’ 0”, 200 lbs
Ware is a freshman from Richmond, California. He also held offers from Air Force, Nevada and UC Davis.
He will most likely take a redshirt, and projects to be a safety for the Illini.
Kendall Smith - #17, SO, 6’ 1”, 200 lbs
Smith played in all 12 games his freshman season, but didn’t see much time with the defense. That should change this season, especially with the departure of Pat Nelson.
Nick Walker - #20, SO, 5’ 10”, 185 lbs
Walker is a transfer-in to Illinois from Crisco College in Texas. I’m not too sure how much of him we’ll see this season to be honest.
Jartavius Martin - #21, FR, 6’ 0”, 190 lbs
Martin will see playing time in his freshman season. Martin comes to Illinois out of Lehigh Acres, Florida, and held offers form Iowa, Air Force and Tulane among others. He will start his career at corner but could transition to nickel or even safety as his Illinois career progresses.
Dylan Wyatt, #22, FR, 6’ 0”, 180 lbs
Wyatt is a freshman out of Oakland, California. I’d be surprised to see much of him playing his freshman season.
Ron Hardge III - #23, FR, 6’ 1”, 180 lbs
Hardge comes to Illinois out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He had multiple power five offers form Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers. He’ll be in the mix for playing time at corner, but with the new redshirt rule it’s possible he plays in some games and still takes the redshirt.
It may come down to how valuable that extra year of eligibility is in Lovie Smith’s eyes. If getting paying time now as a freshman makes him more ready to contribute in 2019 and 2020, that extra season may not really be worth it.
Dawson DeGroot - #24, SO, 6’ 1”, 200 lbs
DeGroot played sparily in his freshman season, but did record one start. He could possibly take a step up and get more playing time, but there is a ton of competition for him to deal with.
Kerby Joesph - #25, FR, 6’ 1”, 190 lbs
Mississippi State and Syracuse also extended offers to the freshman out of Orlando, but he chose to come to Illinois. He’s probably looking at a redshirt this year as Illinois decides if he is a corner or a safety, but with injuries he may have to play.
Alec Andrea - #27, FR, 5’ 11”, 170 lbs
Walk-on freshman from Barrington, Illinois.
Nolan Bernat - #28, JR, 5’ 10”, 190 lbs
Walk-on from Bartlett, Illinois. He played one season of junior college at the College of DuPage before coming to Illinois.
Christian Bobak - #29, SO, 6’ 0”, 200 lbs
Second year walk-on who moved to DB from WR this offseason.
Sydney Brown - #30, FR, 6’ 0”, 195 lbs
The London, Ontario native had a quite recruitment and didn’t make a huge impact upon signing with Illinois, but he has made noise during training camp.
He’s had time at both nickel and safety in camp, and he could see time at both spots as a freshman along with some special teams work. This is another potential diamond in the rough recruit for Illinois, like Bennett Williams was last year.
Cameron Watkins - #31, JR, 6’ 1”, 200 lbs
Cam Watkins is one of the most overlooked players on Illinois. Watkins led Illinois in havoc plays, and is a very steady corner. He started seven games last year and will be a clear cut starter for 2018.
PC Daniel II - #34, FR, 6’ 1”, 205 lbs
First year walk-on from Chicago. Not a Mac.
Michael Marchese - #42, SO, 6’ 4”, 210 lbs
Younger brother of Illinois’ linebacker Jimmy Marchese who is a walk-on. He played on special teams his freshman year and recovered a fumble against Purdue.
Projected Depth Chart
- Cameron Watkins
- Jartavius Martin
- Nolan Bernat
- Nick Walker
- Nate Hobbs
- Ron Hardge III
- Kirby Joseph
- Tony Adams
- Sydney Brown
- Kirby Joseph
- James Knight
- Bennett Williams
- Delano Ware
- Dawson DeGroot
- Stanley Green
- Kendall Smith
- Michael Marchese