Lovie Smith and his defense rely on cornerbacks and safeties perhaps more than any other unit on that side of the ball. Lovie played defensive back in college at Tulsa. One of Lovie’s favorite former players (and likely a former favorite player of most reading this article) is none other than former Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman. With a mostly experienced group of players returning to what was a strong unit a season ago, Illinois’ defensive backs are ready to make another leap forward in 2020.
Lightly recruited out of the state of Florida, Brown is coming off of a monster sophomore season in which he is hailed as one of the heroes of Illinois’ comeback win against Michigan State last November. His 76-yard interception return for touchdown late in the 4th quarter against the Spartans was a highlight of the season. He also had 13 total tackles in that game.
Brown had 51 total tackles and three interceptions, good for eighth and second in the Big Ten Conference. He’s not big, but he’s the type of safety who blankets the field and is capable of creating a turnover on any given play.
Senior Tony Adams has played a lot of football at Illinois, and he’s recorded at least an interception in every season. He had a pick-six last year in the rain against Purdue. He had another key interception the week prior against Wisconsin. He did not play in games against Michigan, Northwestern and the RedBox Bowl game last year against Cal.
Lovie Smith loves Tony Adams. When he’s healthy, he’s a solid all-around safety in the Big Ten.
Junior Delano Ware is Sydney Brown’s backup. Ware had a bigger role in 2018 than he had in 2019, but he’s an important part of what Lovie Smith likes to do with certain defensive packages.
Ware had an interception against Penn State in 2018 and recorded 22 tackles in 2019.
Another safety from the state of Florida, Joseph had 30 tackles a season ago, including 11 in the night game at Nebraska. He had three pass breakups and is one of those players that is getting better each year he’s in the program.
Other safeties on the roster:
James Knight, (JR): Missed the 2019 season because of a knee injury suffered during spring football. Appeared in seven games in 2018 and recorded 12 tackles. He started, and forced a fumble in the game against the South Florida Bulls.
Kendall Smith, (SR): Mainly a special teams player, but listed as a DB. Played in two games in 2019 as a special teams player. Had 10 tackles and forced a fumble in 2018 against Western Illinois. A Bolingbrook, Illinois native, he was recruited as a wide receiver.
Christian Bobak, (SR): Primarily a special teams player, he has played some running back after joining as a walk-on in 2016.
Michael Marchese, (SR): Another special teams player/safety, Marchese had an interception last year in the game against UConn. He started three games at safety in 2018 and had 11 tackles in the game at Northwestern on Thanksgiving Weekend. He hails from Vernon Hills, Illinois where he played his high school ball at Stevenson.
Ben Schultz, (FR): A walk-on who redshirted last season. Played high school locally at Champaign Central.
What a shame and disappointment it was when Marquez Beason, Illinois’ top 2019 recruit (along with Isaiah Williams) went down with an injury in training camp before the season started. Beason, by all accounts, was tearing it up in practice and was slated to be a starter as a true freshman before the injury.
A benefit of the injury happening so early is that Beason has been cleared by doctors and cleared for contact for a while now, so he should be in great shape to start the season in 2020. The one thing Beason does not have is experience. There is a lot expected of Beason given the hype surrounding his recruitment over a year ago.
Senior Nate Hobbs is an excellent tackling cornerback. Remember the upset win against Wisconsin last season? Hobbs had 10 tackles in that game. He’s a beast at reading plays and getting his pad level low enough to come up and make the tackle.
Beason should be more of the ball-hawking cornerback, while Adams’ strength will be helping defend the run — an important piece of playing big boy Big Ten defense.
Junior “Quan” Martin played a fair amount in 2019 primarily because of Beason’s injury. Martin was in the right place at the right time twice against Nebraska, recovering two fumbles in that game. He’s a sound tackler and an important member of the cornerback depth moving forward.
Devon Witherspoon had a sensational freshman season in 2019, and he’s back for more. If not for Devon Witherspoon and his hustle play against Wisconsin, the Illini don’t upset the Badgers — and it’s entirely likely the Illini don’t go bowling. Witherspoon started three games at cornerback last season and appeared in all 13 games. He played well in the bowl game against Cal, and given his experience, he’ll be on the field a whole lot in 2020.
Witherspoon is also a reliable special teams player, having led the 2019 Illini in special teams tackles.
Other cornerbacks on the roster:
Tahveon Nicholson, (FR): Listed as an athlete in the class of 2020, Nicholson can play either cornerback or safety, but he likely will be backup cornerback and play some special teams for the Illini if he’s not redshirted.
Nick Walker, (SR): Appeared in five games last season, mostly on special teams but did play some cornerback in the Iowa and Northwestern games.
Dylan Wyatt, (SO): Missed the entire 2019 season because of injury. Played in 2018 primarily on special teams. He recorded tackles in the Kent State, Purdue and Northwestern games in 2018.
Tailon Leitzsey, (SR): A walk-on who has yet to play in a game. Listed as a DB, unclear if he is a cornerback or safety.