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Midseason Report Card: Defense & Special Teams

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The defense is getting some higher grades.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Now, if anybody is going to get his old takes exposed, it’s me. A lot has happened in the last six weeks and the team is shaping up to be a lot different than what we thought it would be in late August.

Here is where the Illini stand today.

Special Teams

Not much to say here. Illinois special teams are always a standout. We are a classic Big Ten team that loves to punt and kick field goals.

Blake Hayes has 32 punts for 1,449 yards. One-half of “The Lads” ranks eighth in total punt yardage, sixth in total punts, and 25th in punts per game. Hayes has pinned teams deep in their own side of the field. However, Bielema's usage of the punt game has not put Hayes in the most opportune position to succeed.

James McCourt, the other half, is leading the Illini in scoring and has hit on 75 percent of his FG attempts and all of his 14 extra points. McCourt has yet to be put in a position to win the game, again which could be blamed on Bielema’s issues of punting on fourth down in enemy territory.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

Illinois has diverted away from a classic 3-4 defense and at times puts in 3 or even 2 flanked with 2 OLB’s. Since the Virginia game, and the emergence of Johnny Newton, the DL has gotten more aggressive, consistently stuffing the run and pressuring the QB to move out of the pocket or get sacked.

The recent success of the defense to hold the opposing teams to 20 points or fewer can be attributed to the DL. In the last few games, the Illinois line has held its opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing.

Grade: A-

Defensive Backs

After allowing 423 yards against Virginia, the Illinois DBs have gotten better and better. Sydney Brown hits like a truck, Kerby Joseph is picking off balls and most importantly, the team is keeping its opponents in front of them.

The DBs have been better at tackling, but that comes with a grain of salt as the team still ranks 129/130 in long passing plays of 10 or more yards, 114th in long passing plays of 30 or more yards, and 49th in long passing plays of 40 or more yards. There’s still a lot more to learn.

Next week, we see Graham Mertz, who set records for consecutive passes against the Illini last year. Mertz is, however, trending down, while the DBs are trending up. Big chance to show the world that Ryan Walters defense is working and getting better each game.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Calvin Hart’s absence was instantly felt against UTSA and Virginia. With Jake Hansen out for the last two games, the linebacker core has seen an emergence of Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson as inside linebackers.

On the outside, Owen Carney has continued to impress and Seth Coleman is getting more snaps to replace Isaiah Gay.

Even without Hart, this group has been the heart of the defense.

Grade: B+

Come back for our grades on Illinois’ offense so far this season tomorrow.