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2020 Illinois Football: Defensive Line Preview

One of the deepest positions on the field, a combination of new faces and experience gives Illini hope in the trenches.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

The Fighting Illini enter the 2020 season with promise at the defensive linemen position. Yet, the Illini did lose a couple of key departures after last year. The 2019 defensive line helped to produce one of the nations best defenses at creating turnovers.

In 2020, the defensive line will be highlighted by seniors Jamal Woods, Isaiah Gay, and Owen Carney Jr. The Illini are pretty deep at the position. A Bishop Dunne product, Calvin Avery (6-foot-2, 340 pounds) should be exciting to see on the field this year with more experience under his belt. Other notable names to look out for here are Keith Randolph, Deon Pate, Moses Okpala, Anthony Shipton, Roderick Perry and Seth Coleman.


Jamal Woods arguably has the most expectations on the defensive line this year. In 2017, Woods was named Honorable Mention All-Big Ten Freshmen Team. During the 2018 season, he started the first four games before suffering a season-ending injury. Woods missed four games last year, but still collected 14 total tackles and notched a forced fumble against UCONN.

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Owen Carney Jr., a Miami, Florida, native played in all 13 games last season at defensive end. The senior has 36 total tackles over his three seasons with the Illini. I expect another solid effort for Carney this year.

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

Isaiah Gay is another experienced senior, having played in 32 games over his career with 67 total tackles. Gay started in five games last year for the Illini and tallied 27 total tackles on the season. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Gay should be in line for a great senior season as well.


Jamal Milan’s senior campaign included 34 total tackles on the year. He was an anchor on the Illinois defensive line a year ago. His production will be tough to replace by just one guy.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Oluwole Betiku Jr. was on pace for one of the best defensive seasons from an Illini in recent memory. 36 tackles, 13 TFLs, nine sacks, and seven QB hurries in 10 games last year. Eventually declaring for the draft, Betiku was voted 3rd Team All-Big Ten (media) and ranked second in sacks per game in the Big Ten. Though, Betiku did miss games last year with injury.

Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson also graduated after the 2019 season. The two combined for 45 total tackles last year. Jackson only appeared in six games.


Roderick Perry, a graduate transfer from South Carolina State (Darius Leonard’s alma mater), is one name to watch for. The FCS All-American chose the Illini over Florida, Duke, West Virginia, and Virginia. Perry put on a 2019 campaign that had him drawing attention from NFL scouts. He tallied 34 tackles, 14.5 for loss, and a 91.1 Pro Football Focus rating. A lot of experts expect Perry to have a shot at the next level after a season in the Big Ten, and he’s been picked by some to be one of the best DL in the Big Ten.

Anthony Shipton will give the Illini more depth at DL. The JUCO transfer was the No. 9 JUCO defensive lineman and No. 85 overall JUCO recruit. Shipton compiled 40 tackles, four sacks, and 5 TFLs as a sophomore. His other offers included UTEP, Arizona, and Hawaii.


As the Illini look to build off last year’s progress, the defensive line is shaping up to be a position group fans can rely on come gamedays. Lovie has a group with a lot of upside. A couple transfers, some young talent, and experienced seniors should make for a solid season as a unit. Let’s hope that come the end of the season, this group and the Illini have taken that next step.