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Illinois Football 2022 Spring Preview: Defense & Special Teams

A new year, plenty of fresh faces, and higher expectations have arrived.

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

In the heat of March, we’re taking a look at spring football for the Fighting Illini. Even though Coach Bret Bielema has gotten the roster close to the 85 scholarship limit, there will likely be some further transfer movement — especially after spring depth charts are established across college football — which will result in a second wave of transfer portal entries.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

It takes a different type of lineman to meet the demands of a 3-4 defense. They are mostly asked to take on double teams, keep offensive linemen off linebackers, and clog running lanes. At times they will be asked to rush the quarterback, but that isn’t their main responsibility and due to that, they don’t always get the recognition they deserve.

Because of those reasons, it isn’t a surprise that a high school defensive lineman wasn’t signed for the 2022 class.

It remains to be seen, but that could be an ongoing challenge in the coming years and the transfer portal may become Bielema’s best friend when it comes to defensive linemen in the 3-4 scheme.

Rod Perry leaves behind big shoes to fill after the former South Carolina State All-American transfer proved he belonged at the Power 5 level. Calvin Avery will have first crack at nose guard with Verdis Brown backing him up. TeRah Edwards transferred in from Northwestern hoping to make an early impact. At defensive end, Keith Randolph is a stud with All-Big Ten potential, Johnny Newton came on strong last year, and 2021 transfer Sed McConnell should provide depth. Jamal Woods and Deon Pate round out the scholarship depth along the line.

Returning: Calvin Avery, Verdis Brown, Sed McConnell, Johnny Newton, Deon Pate, Keith Randolph, Jamal Woods

Additions: TeRah Edwards

Departures: Rod Perry

INSIDE LINEBACKER:

Jake Hansen and Khalan Tolson are off to pursue their NFL dreams. Despite their production, there shouldn’t be much drop off in 2022.

Tarique Barnes saw plenty of action in 2021 and performed well. Calvin Hart will look to reclaim a starting position after missing the majority of the season with an injury. Kenny Odeluga blueshirted last year, but was one of the most physically talented players in the 2021 recruiting class. Kalen Villanueva who is a converted strong safety, has had a year to develop and will be looking to contribute. Dylan Rosiek should provide depth. Sean Coghlan, Isaac Darkangelo, Alec McEachern, and Ryan Meed are former walk-ones who were placed on scholarship in 2021.

Returning: Tarique Barnes, Sean Coghlan, Isaac Darkangelo, Calvin Hart, Alec McEachern, Ryan Meed, Kenny Odeluga, Dylan Rosiek, Kalen Villanueva, Luke Zardzin

Additions: James Kreutz (Summer)

Departures: Jake Hansen, Khalan Tolson

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER:

Ryan Walters pulled the best out of Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney in their senior year. Now a few young talented players will step up to the plate. Despite the youth, this position will be brimming with explosive ability.

Seth Coleman flashed his pass rushing skills in 2021 and should develop into a more rounded player in 2022. Alec Bryant is a 2021 transfer that fits the mold of the OLBs that Walters wants to deploy. DJ Johnson was a handpicked Bielema recruit in the 2021 recruiting class that’ll be ready for a larger role. Jared Badie is an extremely talented early enrollee that’ll be looking for playing time. Malachi Hood is another early enrollee that brings a load of athletic ability, but will be converting from strong safety at the high school level to outside linebacker. Shammond Cooper may seize the opportunity to push up the depth chart as he isn’t lacking in physical ability - or he may get a look at inside linebacker. Ezekiel Holmes is a scholarship player that should provide depth.

Returning: Alec Bryant, Seth Coleman, Shammond Cooper, Ezekiel Holmes, DJ Johnson, Ben Schultz

Additions: Jared Badie, Malachi Hood, Gabe Jacas (Summer)

Departures: Owen Carney, Isaiah Gay

CORNERBACK:

Devon Witherspoon has one cornerback position locked down. Tahveon Nicholson has the edge in filling the opposite cornerback spot - left open by Tony Adams. Former blueshirt Kionte Curry will see the field this year, if not at corner then at nickel or safety. Elijah Mc-Cantos is an early enrollee and will likely work himself onto the two deep depth chart by the end of spring.

DD Snyder, Tyler Strain, and Daniel Edwards were recruited by the former staff and will provide depth and special teams play. They may also receive looks at safety.

Returning: Kionte Curry, Daniel Edwards, Mike Manning, Tahveon Nicholson, DD Snyder, Tyler Strain, Devon Witherspoon

Additions: Elijah Mc-Cantos, Xavier Scott (Fall)

Departures: Tony Adams

SAFETY:

One of the biggest question marks going into 2022 is depth at the safety positions. Kerby Joseph leaves a big hole as he covered up a number of mistakes in the secondary with his ability to play the ball in the air. Walters found ways of using Sydney Brown’s strengths in run support by aligning him closer to the line of scrimmage and Quan Martin returns after putting together a solid year. Joriell Washington was a hard hitting safety in high school and now has a year of development in the program.

Coran Taylor is a former quarterback and solid athlete looking to get on the field somewhere.

Returning: Sydney Brown, Prince Green, Quan Martin, Coran Taylor, Joriell Washington

Additions: Matthew Bailey (Summer), TJ Griffin (Summer), Tyson Rooks (Summer)

Departures: Prather Hudson, Kerby Joseph, Derrick Smith, Eddie Smith

SPECIAL TEAMS:

This unit will look very different in 2022. Coach Bielema is taking an approach similar to most teams in the SEC of finding kicking specialists through preferred walk-on opportunities and allowing them to earn scholarships, as opposed to offering out of high school.

Returning: Caleb Griffin, Aidan Hall, Hugh Robertson,

Additions: Walk-ons

Departures: Blake Hayes, James McCourt, Ethan Tabel