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Grading Illinois’ Defensive Groups in 2019

Lovie's unit made big strides, but can it sustain?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The defense for Illinois 2019 was predicated on turnovers, and in that regard they were highly successful. There's still progress to be made, but the big question is: Can this defense work? Is it a sustainable system for success?

Turnovers can be a flukey way to mask deficiencies in some areas. Obviously, the defense took a step up from where it was in 2018, jumping all the way to a top-60 finish in S&P+ rankings. However, without pressure up front, and problems in the defensive secondary, this 4-3 unit was carved up by Eastern Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Cal in the Redbox Bowl.

It's a concern but hopefully with experience and talent coming back, and some transfers (hopefully) to help bolster depth, the Illini defense might be good enough to earn back-to-back bowl berths in 2020.

Defensive Line: C+

Inarguably, the interior of the defensive line made tangible progress in it's ability to cause havoc in the trenches.

Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver held up well when healthy, and held teams like Wisconsin and Iowa to season lows in rushing offense and total offense. Milan was unblockable against Purdue, creating all kinds of problems for the Boilermakers in their run offense. Oliver exemplified the nose tackle in a 4-3 defensive front, taking on double teams and creating opportunities for the linebackers to make plays. Depth is an issue, but Calvin Avery and Deon Pate have both shown they have the talent to start in 2020, they just need some coaching and strength gains this off-season.

However, the rest of the front was a bit underwhelming. Oluwole Betiku certainly held his own on the outside, but seven of his team-leading nine sacks came against the non-conference slate. He also dealt with injury, but two sacks in conference is hard to swallow. Too many times his route to the quarterback was as circuitous as a road map. In my opinion, he could have used another season in the system, but wish him nothing but the best in his attempt at the NFL.

Isaiah Gay made strides late, and was arguably the most effective pass rusher down the stretch. The production just simply wasn't there on the outside, though. Owen Carney, Ayo Shogbonyo, Jamal Woods, and the others who played all showed flashes, but not nearly enough to be confident in 2020. There's also going to be a new defensive line coach next year, so hopefully whoever he is can get the most out of the current unit.

I'd be more excited about the freshman and sophomores who will join the rotation next season. Seth Coleman looks like a missile. Keith Randolph is built for the position. Jerzhan Newton looks like a steal. As does Cooper Davis.

Those players will need some time to acclimate, however, so let's see what is available in the transfer portal, and hopefully this coaching staff can add some depth and experience to a unit that sorely needs it.

Linebackers: A

This was where the Illini made the biggest improvement in 2019. Dele Harding, Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler combined to form a lethal, confident linebacking corps that matched up well with its Big Ten counterparts.

Harding, specifically, was a revelation against the run game, while also improving on passing downs as the season wore on. 147 tackles was second in the nation, while also forcing three fumbles and nabbing three interceptions. His ability to shoot gaps and make plays was crucial for the Illini during their 4-2 stretch to end the season. He did a little of everything on his way to First Team All-Big Ten:

Dele wasn't the only one to take big steps this season. Jake Hansen has long been a favorite of this coaching staff, and last year there were some moments he flashed that ability. He just wasn't consistent.

Well, despite a shortened season due to injury, Hansen proved the coaches prophetic with his play in 2019. He's sideline to sideline fast, and his penchant for creating turnovers paved the way for Illinois to garner bowl eligibility. His 7 forced fumbles were more than some teams had this season. 72 tackles in just nine games doesn't tell the whole story. His play was critical in upsetting No. 6 Wisconsin at home, and he even drew the eyes of Butkus Award representatives before injury robbed him of an even greater season.

That's the biggest bugaboo with Hansen, however. If he plays a full season next year, look out for similar acknowledgement and another potential breakout star.

Milo Eifler transferred from the University of Washington in part because he saw an opening on the outside for Illinois. While not perfect, he certainly brought the hit stick with him.

His intentions are cruel, and he came for quite a few players throughout the season. The biggest improvement needs to come in dropping to a spot in coverage, gaining depth in the drop back (something every linebacker on this team needs to learn), and don't lead with the head so much. I'll get to him in a bit, but Stanley Green can teach you a few things about reining those illegal hits in for your senior year.

The depth at linebacker was crucial as well, as Khalan Tolson and Dawson DeGroot played solid in relief, and heralded freshman Tarique Barnes and Shammond Cooper learned some valuable knowledge redshirting. Throw in Derrick Smith (transfer), Lavar Gardner (JUCO) and there is some serious talent in the pipe for the next few years.

Secondary: C-

This was the worst unit on the field, but not for lack of talent. Mostly it was being in the wrong places within the confines of the two deep look, and some astonishingly bad tackling in the back end that puts this unit so low. Safety play was a revolving door before Stanley Green stabilized the position midway through the season. The back four made plays, but not nearly enough, and cost us a few games early including the terrible loss to Eastern Michigan at home.

That being said, when this unit is healthy and producing, it could be one of the best in the Big Ten.

Losing arguably your second-best corner before the season even started was a cruel blow. Marquez Beason's injury in fall camp really hampered a talented group. Keynodo Hudson is a solid, fiery coach, and Beason fits his mentality to a tee.

The corners largely played well, however. Nate Hobbs took another step towards being NFL caliber. Despite his problems against Cal, he by and large held his own against premier receivers across the Big Ten West. His speed and coverage skills should propel him even further in 2020.

On the opposite side, Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon played both hot and cold, but improved over the course of the season. Witherspoon, specifically, proved his ranking belied his talent, as the late addition to the 2019 class worked his way from gunner to starter when Adams went down with injury. His tackle late against Wisconsin held the Badgers out of the endzone, allowing Illinois to come back for the win.

The biggest disappointment was the fall off of Quan Martin's play. Counted on early to be a starter, Martin struggled mightily, especially against Arthur Jackson III, who went for 80 yards and two touchdowns in that horrible Eastern Michigan game. Safeties didn't help much there, either.

Safety play was a bit of a mess. Sydney Brown took a step back from his freshman season, and before Stanley Green came back from injury, the opposite safety play was hard to watch. Kerby Joseph and Delano Ware gave it a go, but weren't quite up to the task. It seems as if the Illini have recruited many solid athletes for the secondary, but don't quite know where to put them in a game situation. That might necessitate another addition through the transfer portal.

The one reason the safeties don't get a terrible grade is the maturation of Stanley Green and the playmaking of Brown. Without the pick-six from Brown against Michigan State, we lose that game. Without the steady hand of Green at strong safety, we don't win those tough games late in the season, and we could be talking about a complete disaster of a season.

The secondary will get better in 2020. Beason, Hobbs, Adams (when healthy), Witherspoon form a very talented mix of corners. Add a safety to replace Green, and hope Sydney Brown takes the next step, and this grade could be much higher next year.

Overall, the defense improved enough to keep Illinois in games, and that's really all any fan wanted. The next step is to be a defense that imposes its will on opponents. A defense that doesn't get beat as often on deep throws and across the middle throws. It'll take some development up front and in the secondary, but another bowl caliber defense should be expected, given the returning talent. 2019: wasn't great, wasn't terrible.