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2021 Illinois Football: Defensive Line Preview

Bret Bielema’s 3-4 scheme is a welcome change for the Illini D-line.

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

There are a lot of familiar faces inside the Smith Football Performance Center.

Bret Bielema lured back the entire defensive line, bringing much-needed experience and starts back to Illinois.

The most significant change we will see this season is the scheme. Lovie Smith’s bend-don’t-break Tampa 2, 4-3 defense is gone, and Bret Bielema’s 3-4 7-man front will be installed. Bielema coached this scheme during his tenure as a position coach for the New England Patriots.

Before training camp, this change can already be seen in the depth chart.

Screen shot from ourlads.com

2021 Starters

For this scheme to work, we need some big boys to guard the defensive front.

Jamal Woods, Defensive Tackle

The 6-foot-2, 275-pound senior returns for his fifth year on the Illini defensive front. After earning a BTN.com All-Freshman Honorable Mention, Woods’ career at Illinois has been riddled with injuries. In what should have been three promising years, Woods played in only 17 games, starting in 11 of them. Much like last year, he has high expectations, and maybe this change in the defensive scheme was just what he needed.

Roderick Perry II, Nose Tackle

In his first season with the Illini, Perry but up big numbers, recording 17 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 sacks and 1 PBU in just six games. The former FCS All-American is one of the few pro-ready linemen on the Illini roster. The 315-pound big man, and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, is slated to start at the nose tackle. Perry has the size and the skill to wreak havoc in the A-gap this year.

Keith Randolph, Jr., Defensive End

Randolf is an unproven sophomore, playing in only nine games in his Illini career. However, due to COVID rules, he still has 4 more full years of eligibility, and from what we’ve seen already, the only way is up. In nine games, Randolph has 15 tackles, 2 TFL’s and one PBU. In case you wanted to know how ready Randolph is, this is all you need to know:

Screenshot Keith Randolf, Illinois bio page, 2020 to 2021

The smile is gone and Randolph is ready for battle.

Backups

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Calvin Avery headlines the backups at nose tackle. The 335-pound junior tackle has played in all but one game in the last three years, making his first start last year. Avery has the experience to get in the rotation and make an immediate impact.

Jer’Zhan Newton, Deon Pate, and Bryce Barnes* also add DL experience, playing in all eight games last year. Newton recorded 23 tackles, and Barnes had 3 tackles and .5 TFLs. Pate has 13 tackles in 25 games has a backup for the Illini.

* Illinois lists Barnes as an OLB, ourlads puts him at DT. His role is subject to change as training camp rolls on.

So What’s Changed?

Owen Carney Jr.

Carney returns with more than 40 games of experience and 16 starts as a defensive end. Carney was on the All-Big Ten Second Team but moves to outside linebacker in the new scheme.

Isaiah Gay

Gay returned as a fifth-year COVID-eligible senior, with 39 games and 13 starts as a defensive end. In the new scheme, he will also be an outside linebacker.

We will have a full linebacker coverage later this month, but the 3-4 scheme adds a new dynamic to this line that should better stop the run. Both Carney and Gay will be expected to play cover, blitz, and the run, but more on that later. This change brings one more player to the line of scrimmage, allowing Illinois to better adjust to the run.

Coaching

Terrance Jamison, DL coach

Terrance Jamison was the coach at rival Purdue before he joined Bielema’s squad. Jamison played and coached in the 4-3, but his defensive lines have been relatively successful. The experienced roster should have no issue shifting to the 3-4.

Ryan Walters, DC

Luckily, Walters brings a robust 3-4 scheme that Jamison should be able to rely on. Walters coached one of the better SEC defenses in 2019 at Missouri, ranking third in the SEC (14th nationally) in total defense, sixth in the SEC (31st nationally) in rushing defense, and first in the SEC (6th nationally) in passing defense.

Final Thoughts

Illinois’ defense should bring back some familiar names but will be running a completely different scheme. The defensive line should plug the gaps, allowing our star linebacker, Jake Hansen, to do his thing and focus his attention on the ball carrier and stop the run.

Note: Training camp just started, expect changes in the depth chart as we gear up for Nebraska in a few weeks.