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2021 Illinois Football: Linebackers Preview

Carney joins Hansen to lead the linebacking corps.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers serve as the jack-of-all-trades of any defense, asked to support the secondary in coverage and the defensive line in stopping the run/pass rush, while also imposing a level of physicality to make opposing offenses afraid to attack the middle of the field. In general, it is tough for a team to win without impactful players at this position.

Luckily for us, we have a couple of well-regarded seniors returning in Jake Hansen and Owen Carney Jr. to headline our linebacking corps.

Let’s take a look of who will be joining them in the middle of our defense this season.


What’s Changed From Last Season?

Scheme

As reported in our Defensive Line preview, Bret Bielema is modifying our defense to a 3-4 defensive scheme. One of the benefits of a 3-4 scheme is the flexibility it provides defensive coordinators, having more pieces in the middle of the field and enabling them to disguise blitzes better and design dynamic coverage schemes. Outside linebackers will be expected to be the primary sources of pass rush, and inside linebackers will be tasked with attacking in run support and covering the middle of the field.

Key Loss

Milo Eifler’s decision to leave for the NFL (picked up by the New York Jets) left some big shoes to fill in the middle of the defense. Eifler started all but two games since he transferred to Illinois as a junior from the University of Washington. We’ll miss his experience, relentless motor and eye-popping hits such as these:


Starters

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

Jake Hansen, ILB (Sr.)

Hansen is one of the best linebackers in the country, and his decision to return to the Illini was an unexpected bonus for Bielema. Hansen has started every game he’s suited up for since the 2018 season, and was named to the All-Big Ten Second-Team last season.

His style is unique in the sense that he has a penchant for creating turnovers while also playing fundamentally sound football. Hansen has caused the most turnovers in the NCAA since 2019, while also maintaining a top-5 tackling grade.

Hansen has a chance to further boost his ranking among the Illini greats this season. With 4 more forced fumbles he will pass Simeon Rice for most in Illinois history, and if he leads the Illini in tackles again he will be the second Illini ever to lead the team in tackles in three different seasons. He was also named to several preseason All-Big Ten and All-American teams heading into this season.

Calvin Hart Jr., ILB (Jr.)

Hart is the only new face among the starters, joining the Illini as a transfer from NC State. He was stuck behind All-ACC First-Team linebacker Payton Wilson on the depth chart at NC State, but showed his promising talent whenever he got playing time. Playing alongside Hansen should allow him to ease into the starter responsibilities.

Isaiah Gay, OLB (Sr.)

Since joining the Illini in 2017, Gay has been a part of the pass rush rotation, playing in every game and even getting spot starts when needed. He will be making a switch from a 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB this season, so he will have to add some more coverage responsibilities in addition to his traditional pass rush role.

Owen Carney Jr., OLB (Sr.)

Carney is another Super Senior who will be making the switch from DE to OLB, but his experience should help in his transition. He saw an increase in his playing time through the 2018-19 seasons and finally broke through into the starting lineup in 2020.

He caught the nation’s attention with his 3-sack performance against arch-rival Purdue last year and was named to the All-Big Ten Second-Team. As a result, he enters this season with high expectations as he was named to the preseason All-Big Ten team.


Depth

Coming off the bench we will have Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson who both have starting experience along with former 4-star recruit Shammond Cooper.

The change to a 3-4 scheme requires more linebackers by nature so it will probably take us a couple recruiting cycles to build up wider depth at the position.


The scheme change will bring a lot more onto the plate of the linebacking corps as they shoulder the primary playmaking responsibility, but with Hansen and Carney leading the group we should be just fine.