In eight games in 2020, Illinois gave up 34.9 points per game and 467 yards per game. Respectively, those were the 2nd and 1st worst figures in the Big Ten. While they were 8th in passing defense, the secondary gave up a ton of big plays, and the safeties got burnt way too often.
Over the offseason, the Fighting Illini lost a key part of their defense to the draft in CB Nate Hobbs. Other than that, Illinois has kept most of its secondary, including three of four starters in Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, and Tony Adams. Here’s a look at the starters for this upcoming season.
Tony Adams, Cornerback
Tony Adams is moving from safety back to his natural position at corner, and he will be the senior leader of the group. Even when he wasn’t in his natural position, Adams has been a huge playmaker for the Orange and Blue. He’s had at least one INT every year so far, including the pick that gave the Illini the ball before their upset of Wisconsin in 2019.
Devon Witherspoon, Cornerback
Across from Adams will be Devon Witherspoon. Illinois was the only power conference team to recruit Witherspoon, who was not graded by any of the major recruiting sites. Regardless, it turned out to be a great fit. The sophomore had a breakout season last year with 33 tackles, two INTs, and three forced fumbles.
Sydney Brown, Strong Safety
One of the biggest question marks for the Illini is Sydney Brown. Brown lead the secondary with 88 tackles in 2019 and had a huge pick six in the 4th quarter of the thriller at Michigan State. But then struggled with a hamstring injury in 2020 that forced him to miss the last two games of the year. If he can return to his 2019 form, it’ll be good news for a position group that underperformed last year.
Jartavius Martin, Free Safety
One of ten defensive backs out of Florida, Jartavius Martin will start across from Brown. Martin spent 2020 as a second stringer and has yet to measure up to his freshman season when he recorded 42 tackles and three INTs.
The second team cornerbacks are Eddie and Kendall Smith. Eddie Smith was a highly touted prospect from Louisiana who committed to Bama. He transferred to Illinois in the offseason after redshirting in 2019 and seeing limited playing time in 2020. Kendall Smith, a third stringer last year who didn’t get much playing time, moves up to the second line this year as a senior.
Prather Hudson, a strong safety from UGA, is the second backup to transfer from the SEC. Georgia was the only power conference school that recruited him out of high school. The graduate transfer played four years at UGA but saw limited snaps. Free safety Kerby Joseph is probably the biggest known commodity on the second string, but he’s still had limited playing time.
Strong safety Joriell Washington and free safety Kionte Curry are both good looking prospects out of Florida that could see some playing time off the third string.
It’s hard to emphasize just how much the Illini lost with Nate Hobbs. While Tony Adams should be good at corner, the switch from safety will still take some adjustment. Also, Jartavius Martin was fine as a backup, but he’ll have a learning curve as well.
Overall, the starting unit is what you’d expect from a middle-to-bottom tier team in the Big Ten. The backups’ lack of experience is concerning. If you’re looking for a bright spot to this season, I’d look somewhere else.