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2019 Football Position Preview: Defensive Line

The defensive line took a massive hit this off-season, but how will the players respond?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 13 Purdue at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

News of Bobby Roundtree’s tragic injury was devastating to everyone associated with Illinois Football, especially his teammates and coaches. I commend Lovie Smith for the compassion he showed during Roundtree’s stay in the hospital. Football takes a distant backseat to Bobby’s health, and we all wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Defensive line coach Austin Clark will rely heavily on Roundtree’s classmates from the 2017 recruiting class during this upcoming season, most notably Owen Carney Jr., Isaiah Gay, Jamal Woods, and Lere Oladipo. The position group is also one of the few to have a considerable number of experienced seniors who are ready to play major roles, including Jamal Milan, Kenyon Jackson, and Tymir Oliver.

Owen Carney played in all games last season and started in eight, racking up 21 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the process. The 2019 season could easily be a breakout for the former star recruit, who chose Illinois over offers from Miami, Florida State, and a litany of SEC schools and other football powerhouses.

Isaiah Gay has primarily been used as a pass rusher during his first two seasons with the Illini, but now with several years on a college strength and conditioning regimen, he could be poised to take on more of an every-down defensive end role. Gay had identical stat lines of 20 tackles and one sack in both 2018 and 2017.

Jamal Woods out of Hueytown, Alabama was an outstanding find by Lovie Smith’s staff, and his production has paid dividends throughout his tenure at Illinois. Though only appearing in four games last season, Woods accumulated 4.0 TFLs from the DT position, on top of the 3.5 that he racked up in 2017. Jamal Woods could be another budding star on the interior of the defensive line for Illinois.

Lere Oladipo was one of the few players from Lovie Smith’s first class to redshirt in 2017, which was more a testament to the depth of the defensive line position than any deficiency on Oladipo’s part. Oladipo was another highly prized recruit who courted offers from Big Ten powers like Penn State and Michigan State. Depending on his performance in camp, Oladipo could establish himself as a fixture behind some of the more experienced players on the interior of the defensive line.

Speaking of those experienced players, few Illini bring as much in-game experience to the table as fifth-year senior Jamal Milan. Though hampered by injuries throughout his career, Milan brings a presence to the defensive line that noticeably impacts the game when he’s on the field. Phil Steele recognized his ability by placing him on the All-Big Ten Fourth Team for the defensive line. Milan’s athleticism was on full display during the way-too-close 2017 matchup with Ball State, when he blocked the potential game-tying field goal with five seconds left.

With 19 starts under his belt over his career, Milan will certainly anchor the Illinois defensive line this season as long as he can stay healthy.

Tymir Oliver has been something of an unsung hero since his debut in 2016. Oliver has also struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he’s compiled 63 total tackles and four sacks over essentially two seasons of play. Kenyon Jackson finds himself in a similar situation, having been a fairly consistent presence on the defensive line over the past three seasons while collecting 58 total tackles and two sacks.

This position will likely be dominated by older players, but many of the younger players will play vital supporting roles. Chief among them is the talented sophomore DT Calvin Avery, who would likely play behind Milan, Jackson, Woods, and Oliver in a perfect world. But considering the injury histories of the older players ahead of him, Austin Clark will no doubt rely heavily upon Avery this season, and he could easily experience a breakout as a sophomore. Ezekiel Holmes is another class of 2018 player who could have an impact this season after redshirting last season.

Other players in this position group have also proven that they can play in the Big Ten, even though they may not be near the top of the depth chart barring major improvement during camp in August. These players include Ayo Shogbonyo and Deon Pate, both of whom have seen substantial playing time and even a few starts over the past two seasons.

And of course, there is Oluwole Betiku Jr., the defensive end transfer from USC. A former five-star recruit and top-15 player in the nation, Betiku Jr. appeared in just 14 games in 2016 and 2017 before missing all of last season with a hip injury. He comes to Champaign with a lot to prove and very little experience, but the reward would certainly make the risk worth it.

With the existing depth across the defensive line and a consistent deference to older players at the position during Lovie’s tenure, it’s unlikely that incoming freshmen Moses Okpala and Seth Coleman find significant playing time on the field this season unless major injuries strike the older defensive ends.