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2020 Illinois Football: LB Preview

The experienced linebacker corps is poised to lead the Illini defense in 2020

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers have always been the key to Lovie Smith’s most successful defenses, but it’s a position group that hasn’t had much star power since Lovie’s arrival. That began to change last season, and assuming college football is played in 2020, the Illini linebackers will be ready to live up to their full potential this season despite losing Dele Harding to graduation last year.

Jake Hansen - Senior

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

Hansen comes into the 2020 season with serious expectations. He was named as a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award in 2019, and now finds himself on the watch lists for both the Butkus Award and the Nagurski Award in 2020.

Though he dealt with injuries in the last few games of 2019, Hansen’s stats were still impressive, as he recorded the third-most tackles on the team with 72. He also far and away led the team with 7 forced fumbles. If Hansen can stay healthy, he will certainly be the heart and soul of this defense.

Milo Eifler - Senior

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

Expectations are also high for Eifler, the former Washington Huskies transfer, who is coming off a breakout 2019 season during which he recorded 63 tackles and 10 TFLs across all 13 games.

Health concerns aside, Eifler will almost certainly be starting alongside Hansen in 2020. Those two should make for one of the most formidable linebacker duos in the Big Ten.

Dawson DeGroot - Senior

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

Though he’s had something of a quiet career during his time at Illinois, Dawson DeGroot has played and at times started at various positions on defense and special teams since his freshman year. DeGroot recorded 12 tackles in 2019, of which 11 occurred at Michigan State, when he filled in admirably with both Eifler and Hansen out with injuries.

DeGroot proved himself in that game against a talented opponent, and figures to see significant playing time this year whether injuries strike again or not.

Khalan Tolson - Junior

NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-California vs Illinois Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

In a similar situation to DeGroot, Khalan Tolson had seen limited playing time until he was forced into a starting role against the Michigan State Spartans in 2019. His efforts were key to stopping the Spartans’ offense and sealing the now legendary comeback. Tolson took Jake Hansen’s position after the latter went down with an injury late in the season, and Tolson recorded 38 tackles on the season in Hansen’s place.

Tolson and DeGroot will likely be fighting for playing time in 2020, but Tolson seems to have proven himself in ample opportunities last season.

Derrick Smith - Junior

NCAA Football: Miami at Louisiana State Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Another of Lovie Smith’s transfer portal successes, Derrick Smith comes to Champaign after playing two seasons in the secondary for the Miami Hurricanes. Smith played sparingly during his freshman and sophomore seasons in Coral Gables, as he recorded 24 tackles over the two seasons. Of note, he picked up six tackles as a freshman against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 ACC Championship Game.

Derrick Smith seems to fit Lovie Smith’s preference toward slightly undersized but faster linebackers, and should compete for playing time in 2020.

Tarique Barnes - Sophomore

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

Now that sufficient depth has been built at the linebacker position, Tarique Barnes has had the luxury of dipping his toes into Big Ten football and learning the ropes slowly, as opposed to being forced to start as a freshman in the manner of many of his predecessors.

Barnes mostly played on special teams in his freshman season and picked up 13 total tackles, including 4 at Michigan State. As a sophomore, Barnes should compete for playing time and be able to fill in as needed if injuries become a problem.

Shammond Cooper - Redshirt Freshman

Cooper also benefited from the depth ahead of him and preserved his redshirt by playing in three games in 2019. He mostly played on special teams in those three games, and recorded 5 total tackles. Once a heralded recruit out of St. Louis, Cooper had a chance to build up his strength and speed in 2019 and during this past offseason.

He is expected to compete for playing time this season and could play a role similar to Khalan Tolson last year should injury problems resurface.

Other linebackers to watch:

  • Sean Coghlan - Junior: played in 12 games in 2019 and recorded 5 tackles on special teams
  • Alec McEachern - Junior: played in 12 games in 2019 and recorded 4 tackles on special teams
  • Mark Di Iorio - Freshman-RS: redshirted during the 2019 season
  • Ryan Meed - Freshman-RS: redshirted during the 2019 season