Illinois has had a couple of very good defensive years this decade, but unfortunately those have never been the years that the offense shows up. Nevertheless, here’s the All-Decade Defense and Special Teams!
Defensive End: Whitney Mercilus
The last All-American for the Fighting Illini was the easiest selection for the defensive side of this team. He had a relatively quiet sophomore year in 2010 before exploding in 2011 to put up one of the best single-season defensive performances in the long and illustrious history of Illinois football defenders.
Mercilus led the nation with 16 sacks and 9 forced fumbles while ranking second in the country with 22.5 tackles for loss. He was the star of Vic Koenning’s incredible defense that held a fully-powered Ohio State (as in, all their suspended players came back) to just one pass completion and helped put Russell Wilson’s Wisconsin team on the ropes. It’s unfortunate that the better the defense played, the less functional the offense became.
Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American and lived up to his name in every possible way.
Defensive Tackle: Corey Liuget
Before Mercilus was the star of the Illini defensive line, it was Liuget who commanded the attention of opposing coordinators. He had just one season in the 2010s, but Liuget terrorizing Robert Griffin III in the Baylor bowl game is one of my enduring memories of the decade of Illini Football. He earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors in his junior year of 2010 before leaving early for the draft, making 63 tackles, 12.5 TFL’s and 3 pass knockdowns in that season.
Defensive Tackle: Akeem Spence
Spence played with Liuget for one season and then became the anchor himself. In three years from 2010 through 2012, he racked up 186 tackles and 16.5 TFLs. His last two seasons represented the top two single-season tackle totals by a defensive tackle in this decade with 69 and 72 respectively. Spence started every single game of his Illini career and was named a Freshman All-American in 2010.
Defensive End: Bobby Roundtree
No, this isn’t just a sentimental pick. After his first two seasons, Roundtree was seen as the best player on the Fighting Illini heading into 2019 prior to his spinal injury in a freak accident, and for good reason. He was the first true freshman to start at DE for Illinois since 1980, and he showed that he earned that distinction as he put together a 50-tackle, 4-sack campaign on his way to the BTN.com All-Freshman team.
As a sophomore, he was far and away the most effective player on the Illini defense, making 8.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL’s among 67 total tackles. On top of that, he forced a fumble and knocked down 7 passes. That he wasn’t able to play for Illinois’ first bowl team in five years is proof that life can be cold, callous and uncaring.
He’s still going to have a bright future; it’s just going to look different than everyone thought a year ago.
Linebacker: Martez Wilson
After missing nearly the entire 2009 season with a neck injury, the former five-star recruit returned with a vengeance in the 2010 season at outside linebacker. He led the Illini by a huge margin with 112 tackles including 11.5 TFL’s and managed an interception as well as a blocked punt.
After Tez played his redshirt junior season up to his full potential, he was named First-Team All Big Ten and declared for the draft, where he was a third-round pick by New Orleans.
Linebacker: Mason Monheim
Monheim was put into the starting lineup just three games into his career, and he proceeded to start the last 47 games of his career from 2012-15 at middle linebacker. He led the Illini with 86 tackles as a true freshman and again as a junior in 2014 with 110. His prolific tackling led him to 7th on the all-time list of Illini tacklers with 392, and he’s fourth in all-time forced fumbles with seven.
After a 2013 campaign where the entire Illinois team came up with just three picks, Monheim led the 2014 team with two, both in important spots. His first was in the homecoming upset against Minnesota, and his second was the first Illini pick-six in over two years against Northwestern in a game that clinched the first bowl for Illinois since 2011.
Monheim was never the biggest or the fastest linebacker, but he always positioned himself well and played his assignments well. More than anything though, he was tough as nails and brought that attitude to the defense. I damn near wept when he returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern in 2015 to cut their lead to 7 in a desperate bid to extend his career one more game. Though he was on four teams that finished with losing records, we remember him fondly.
Linebacker: Jonathan Brown
Brown started 30 games at outside linebacker between 2010 and 2013 and was named All-Big Ten in three of those seasons. He’s third on the all-time Illinois list in tackles for loss with 45.5, and his stat line would look even more remarkable if not for an injury that took him out of the last three games and change of a 2012 season in which he was named a Butkus Award semifinalist.
Brown led the Illini in tackles in 2011 and 2013, racking up over 100 each year with at least 15 TFL’s each year. He was an instinctive and athletic playmaker who was very proficient at reading an offense. He played a big role in Illinois’ surprising win against Cincinnati in 2013 and then kept the Illini in the game with Washington with 15 tackles. I remember him best for the 2011 Arizona State game, where he had 1.5 sacks of Brock Osweiler and picked him off for good measure in a defensive struggle under the lights that saw the Illini emerge victorious.
Cornerback: Terry Hawthorne
Since this is the 2010s, we can’t talk about my favorite Black Cat play of all time, but you know what it is.
Hawthorne did play three seasons in the decade, however, and was a tremendous athlete and man-coverage guy. He was an honorable mention All Big Ten selection in 2011 and 2012, and missed around half of the 2010 season due to injury. Had he played against Minnesota...well...let’s not get into that.
Across those three seasons, he broke up 21 pases and recorded 132 tackles. My enduring memory of Hawthorne, besides a certain tackle in a 2009 game, will be his performance against UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011, where he was named defensive MVP. The moment I’ll always remember is his pick-six late in the third quarter to give the Illini a lead they’d never relinquish. The Fight Hunger Bowl would later become the Redbox Bowl. Perhaps there’s a sequel waiting.
Safety: Clayton Fejedelem
Fejedelem had an unlikely journey to the NFL, playing two seasons at St. Xavier University in the NAIA before transferring to Illinois as a walk-on to play 2014 after redshirting 2013. In 2014, he played every game before finally getting his first career start against Northwestern, making 12 tackles in the bowl-clinching victory.
In 2015, however, he was the heart and soul of an Illini defense that never seems to get enough credit for just how good it was. Easily the second-best defense of the decade behind only 2011, the 2015 defense was ultimately undone by a dysfunctional offense, but it was a formidable unit nonetheless, and Fejedelem was its anchor. He became a run-stuffing free safety, making 140 tackles in his one full-time starting season. This was the most by an Illini since 2006 and was fifth in the nation. He played almost like another middle linebacker, but he also intercepted two passes, including a crucial pick against Nebraska that helped seal the win, and recovered a blocked punt for a TD against Middle Tennessee
My memory of him was when I returned to Grange Grove to cook more food after a 28-3 loss to Ohio State where the defense neutralized the No. 3 team in the nation with Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and JT Barrett/Cardale Jones on offense, only to lose by 25 because the offense scored just three points off five trips inside the Buckeyes 35. I saw him leaving, recognizing his flowing locks immediately, and got his attention and saluted him on a hell of a game. Great dude.
Safety: Tavon Wilson
Wilson was an All-Big Ten selection at safety his junior and senior years in 2010 and 2011 as his defense helped the Illini open the decade with two bowl wins. He started 26 games in the decade and in 2010 broke up 8 passes and recovered two fumbles. In 2011 he racked up 81 tackles and terrorized Indiana with 3.5 TFL’s and a 66-yard fumble return TD.
Cornerback: V’Angelo Bentley
V was named honorable mention All Big Ten in 2014 and made 32 starts in 46 games played. He managed 4 TFL’s in limited action in 2013, but over his last two years he collected 99 tackles and 6 PBU’s. Another very athletic corner reminiscent of Hawthorne, his most notable play as a corner was a fumble return touchdown against Minnesota in 2014 to enable the upset.
DE: Michael Buchanan, Jihad Ward, Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips
DT: Jamal Milan
LB: Jake Hansen, Dele Harding, Del’Shawn Phillips
S: Trulon Henry
Defensive end was probably the deepest position group, as Ward, Smoot, Phillips and Buchanan all received honors as multi-year starters. That was the only one I really struggled with.
Milan had to go on this list after what I wrote about him earlier. DelShawn Philips was at various times the best player on the field for some Lovie defenses, and Hansen and Harding for this year alone deserve mentions. Trulon Henry also garnered some honors as a hybrid LB/S who filled multiple roles.
Special Teams All-Decade Team
Special teams is usually grouped with defense anyway.
Kicker: Chase McLaughlin
The 2018 Big Ten Kicker Of The Year has been bouncing around the NFL after demonstrating elite range from 2016-18 with the help of noted long field goal enthusiast Lovie Smith.
I choose to believe that the former walk-on entrusted his comrade James McCourt with the sacred duty of exorcising the ghost of McLaughlin’s infamous Purdoink, and so he played a role in defeating Wisconsin this year.
Punter: Blake Hayes
Though Justin Duvernois of the 2011 to 2014 teams was close, Hayes has been a weapon for this turnover-hungry defense, routinely pinning opponents deep and winning Big Ten Punter Of The Year In 2019. Illinois punters have unfortunately been very prolific this decade, but if you need to punt a lot, might as well have the best punter. Hayes had the most dominant game I’ve ever seen by a punter against Purdue in the driving rain this year.
KR/PR: V’Angelo Bentley
Bentley is by miles the most prolific return man of the decade for Illinois and is the only Illini to ever score on a punt return, kick return, interception return and fumble recovery. When you score the only Illini punt return and kick return touchdowns of the decade, you end up on this list. (It’s been six years since the last time Illinois scored on a punt return or kick return, blocked punts notwithstanding)
Bentley was an honorable mention All-Big Ten return man in 2015 and racked up over 2,400 total return yards across three seasons as a returner.