This is a position that has dramatically changed in two years.
Tre Watson was a quality Big Ten linebacker (proved by his play last year with Maryland). After that, the linebackers were a hodgepodge of up and down play. Hardy Nickerson Jr., Del’Shawn Phillips, they had some nice moments for Illinois. It just wasn't enough.
Linebackers look poised for a breakout in 2019. There's talent, there's experience, there's depth. You can finally feel good about that fourth or fifth guy to come in. Recruiting and transfers have bolstered linebackers into a strong point for the Illini.
The starters look like Big Ten linebackers. It starts in the middle with Dele Harding.
Harding has paid his dues, sat behind some quality in the middle, but for all intents and purposes, he looks to be the breakout player few people are talking about.
He looked to be the leader of the defense in spring. He's gotten faster, and he looks to be one of the better blitzing 'backers on the roster. He'll be counted on a lot this year to stem the tide against some tough running teams on the schedule.
There's a reason he had better offers in high school. There's a reason he chose Illinois. This year, he's on a mission to prove why.
At outside, there's a familiar face, and some potential new ones.
Jake Hansen lost his 2017 to an ACL tear. His debut in 2018 was auspicious. He led the team in tackles and tackles for loss against Kent State. His sideline-to-sideline speed was on full display. He looked as good as the coaching staff had advertised for the last couple of years.
Then, he hit somewhat of a wall. Remember, this was his first full season as a starter, so hiccups were inevitable. Still, he struggled in Big Ten competition.
Going into year two as a starter, expectations are ramped up for the redshirt senior and rightfully so. He showed flashes throughout the season, now he'll be asked to be another leader of the defense for 2019.
On the opposite side, there is some intrigue as to who will man that strong side.
Converted from safety, Delano Ware played some quality football for the Illini last year. Especially for a freshman from California, Ware acclimated rather well. Bulking up a bit in the off-season, the coaching staff sees him as a linebacker in this scheme. He certainly looked the part in spring. He has potential as a run-stuffing outside option going forward. Hopefully, that safety speed will transfer as well. It's a clever gamble for the coaching staff, and adds some depth to the position.
Competing with Ware is the uber athletic transfer from Washington, Milo Eifler. Finally eligible to play, Eifler has been itching to get on the field. He could easily end up as the best coverage linebacker in the system. He plays fast. I think most fans will be interested to see exactly what he brings to the table this season, because he is as talented an athlete as anyone on the field.
For depth, there are some gifted options as well. Khalan Tolson from Florida has speed to burn. Incoming freshmen Shammond Cooper and Tarique Barnes look like great finds in this incoming class, they just need to bulk up.
Things are definitely on an uptick at the linebacker spots moving forward. It'll be up to Miles Smith and his father to maximize the talent infusion that's coalesced for 2019.