Defensive line coach Austin Clark has to be pretty pleased with his haul this recruiting cycle.
After some late hand-wringing over some interest from other schools, Illinois closed out on three of their top targets along the defensive line. Seth Coleman, Moses Okpala and Keith Randolph represent a significant upgrade along the front seven. Adding depth at defensive end was a must, and Illinois got some high upside.
The human missile. That's the most apt description I can come up with. With a thin, wiry frame, Coleman makes up for his lack of size with supreme get-off for a d-end. His first step is reminiscent of Isaiah Gay in high school. He explodes off the line, and his breakout senior year only strengthened his case as one of the most talented players in this class. He'll be fun to watch develop.
Best Case scenario: Whitney Mercilus.
Apropos of the bodily frame, Mercilus and Coleman share a lot in common both physically and style. Coleman uses his hands well to disengage from blocks and get to the quarterback. He also has a budding array of pass rushing moves to disrupt the back field.
Mercilus had a very successful career at Illinois, especially as an upperclassman. He also started as a skinny-as-a-pencil end with a projectable frame. It would be tremendous for Illinois' future if Coleman created a similar path.
Floor: Isaiah Gay
Not to knock Gay here, but after a promising start, his time at Illinois hasn't gone according to plan. He definitely has the speed to gain the edge as a pass rusher. However, the offensive linemen in college are a lot more refined than in high school. It's just been very hard for Gay to disengage from blockers at this level. It reminds of Shea McClellan as a Bear under Lovie. Too small, even with that quickness.
If Coleman doesn't put on a little more size, and stays a similar weight, he'll have a real hard time getting to the quarterback at Illinois.
Realistically, though, his upside and disruption skills will translate well as an upperclassman, and he complements Bobby Roundtree and the rest of the line well.
This is the prototypical size you want in a defensive lineman. 6 foot 7 with an enormous wingspan. Already weighs over 265 pounds. He's raw, but that's a good starting point.
Best Case Scenario: Jihad Ward
Their frames are almost identical. They both are raw, but with the right teachers, they could unearth that potential and unlock a monster in the front seven.
Ward never reached his full potential here, and his pro career has been a bit uneven, but the talent is undeniable, and Okpala could easily match or exceed his production at Illinois. It'll just take the right coaching. Austin Clark, you're up.
Floor: backup offensive lineman
It would be a shame to see this, because I believe his future lies in being a solid defensive end. However, there are so many problems with depth on the other side of the ball that a shift could be inevitable.
That being said, he could definitely become a nice offensive lineman. I just feel it would be squandering his potential.
Realistically, Jihad Ward is exactly what we should expect when Okpala is a junior or senior.
This might just be my favorite player, defensively, in this class. Not discounting Marquez Beason's skills, but Randolph checks all the boxes as a potential All Big Ten defensive end in time. He's raw, like Okpala, but has a higher upside and could really develop into something special.
Best Case Scenario: Michigan State's Kenny Willekes.
Why not dream big? I mentioned earlier I thought Randolph has All Big Ten level talent. Well, who better to mold yourself after than the reigning Big Ten Defensive End of the Year? Randolph has that talent. With some strength gains and work in the offseason, Randolph could be the best defensive lineman on the team. He has that kind of potential.
Floor: solid, unspectacular depth.
In my opinion, this only happens if Randolph is injured, or recruiting is so good that he's passed up on the depth chart. Unlikely but possible. His ability will carry him wherever he wants to go. We'll see if Illinois' coaches can help him hit his tremendous ceiling.
Realistically, he may not reach my lofty aspirations for him. He could definitely end up being the best defender for the Illini in a few years, however.
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