Last season, the defense as a whole struggled to keep games close especially toward the end of the season. The loss of Bennett Williams at the safety position forced other young players into starting roles before they were truly ready. But now, many of those same defenders return with considerably more experience, along with an offseason of strength and conditioning, and they’re poised to make significant gains in 2019.
The only senior in the group with significant playing time is safety Stanley Green, who returns for his final year as an Illini. Green has an incredible knack for forcing fumbles, as he’s already forced seven fumbles over his career, which is good for the 4th most in program history. As a hard-hitting safety, Green needs to avoid targeting penalties and consistently take better angles, but he has all of the tools to put everything together in his last year.
Lovie’s first class of now-junior defensive banks was strong, and includes Tony Adams, James Knight, Nick Walker, and Nate Hobbs. Adams has shown considerable talent since his debut in 2017, but injuries have unfortunately limited his playing time. James Knight has bounced around across several positions, but has established himself as a reliable defender wherever he is on the field. Walker transferred to Illinois from Cisco College (TX) last season and saw time primarily on special teams.
Nate Hobbs has been one of the gems of the junior class. Hobbs is a fantastic athlete and one of Lovie’s best recruiting finds, as he’s accumulated 70 tackles and 5.0 TFLs over his two seasons, while also racking up over 250 yards on punt and kickoff returns. Hobbs will anchor the secondary at the corner position in 2019.
The 2018 recruiting class was also rich with talented young defensive backs, many of whom saw significant playing time last season, including sophomores Jartavious Martin, Dylan Wyatt, Kerby Joseph, and Sydney Brown. Delano Ware also saw minutes in the secondary last season, but he has been moved to linebacker for this season.
Since his breakout as a budding shutdown corner as a freshman last season, Quan Martin has established himself as a key piece to the secondary alongside Nate Hobbs. Martin finished last year with 42 tackles and three interceptions, which was second most on the team behind only Del’Shawn Phillips. Wyatt and Joseph are both quality athletes who provided depth last season, but stand a solid chance of earning more playing time in 2019. Sydney Brown was one of the most underrated defensive backs last season, as he ranked fifth on the team for total tackles with 55 at both the safety and nickel positions. Brown looks to float between both positions again this season, although I wouldn’t be shocked if he tries out linebacker as well since he has a similar build to Delano Ware.
The secondary will also play host to a trio of newcomers who will immediately compete for playing time: Marquez Beason, Joseph Thompson, and recently committed Devon Witherspoon. Beason was a nationally pursued four-star recruit out of high school last year, who chose to play for Lovie Smith over offers from a host of high-major programs including USC, Georgia, Florida State, and others. Given the substantial impact that freshman made in the defensive backfield last season, it seems reasonable to believe that Beason will play a major role in the secondary this season. Thompson was an important in-state recruit from the powerhouse Chicago Phillips program, and he figures to challenge for playing time at cornerback or on special teams in 2019. Witherspoon is likely going to either play a role on special teams or redshirt this season, but his late addition just a few days ago was an important one for Lovie and Co. to build depth.
The Illini can also count on a number of talented walk-ons in the secondary, such as Christian Bobak, Michael Marchese, and Nolan Bernat. The added experience and talent will almost certainly result in improvement for this young secondary, and I see a big season ahead for the entire unit.