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Three big questions for Illinois’ 2022 defense

Ryan Walters. Year 2.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 28 Nebraska at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ryan Walters’ defense was impressive with its numbers last year. I shared this at the end of last season, but it’s important, so I’ll share it again.

As I had mentioned before:

On the baseline, you can see that the stats are really not that much different. Except in the Red Zone, Points Per Game, Opponents Yards Per Game, Third-Down Conversions, and Opponent Time of Possession. We can argue that the Virginia game is really an outlier in all of this. Leaving the stats from Virginia’s league-leading offense, these numbers really change, where Illinois is now holding teams to 19.3 points a game and 372.4 yards per game.

Honestly, with the way things were going, I’d argue the Iowa game last year was an outlier as well. The offense fell apart and gave up 2 pick-6s, you can’t knock the defense for that.

Ryan Walters did a stellar job in building the defense in 2021, and his contract extension was well deserved.

However, 2022 brings a new challenge.

There are a lot of new faces in the 2022 Illini defense and carrying over that consistency into 2022 will be difficult. Replacing the amount of production and seniority that Illinois lost is a tough task without 5-star recruits on the bench.

We will get into specific details on position groups in the coming weeks, but here are the biggest questions I have for the 2022 defense.

Who will replace Kerby Joseph?

In the last half of the season, Illinois gave up only a single passing TD, at the end of the 1st quarter in a 9OT thriller against Penn State.

A lot of that success can be attributed to PFF highest-rated safety Kerby Joseph playing lockdown defense game after game. Joseph had an eye for the ball snagging 5 interceptions and was instinctive in the game, adding 7 pass breakups to his tally.

Senior Quan Martin is my choice as the front-runner to step into Joseph’s position. Martin had 1 interception and 8 pass breakups and was the No. 2 tackling safety in the Big Ten according to PFF.

Will the Defensive Line maintain its dominance?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 28 Nebraska at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rod Perry needs to be replaced, but the rest of the big boys will be back on the line. Calvin Avery, Verdis Brown, Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Jamal Woods all return to their positions on the line. The importance of the nose tackle on Illinois defense is still up in the air. Illinois defensive schemes are very opponent and game-pace dependent. Naturally, the team lines up with an odd-man line (3 or 5), but has sprinkled in even-man lines to counteract a heavy passing attack.

I suspect that Calvin Avery will be tasked to pick up the pace on the line and cover for the hole left by the 315-pound boulder named Rod Perry.

Who steps up at OLB and ILB?

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The most production was lost in these groups with the least experience stepping into the position. Illinois lost ILBs Jake Hansen and Khalan Tolson and OLBs Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay. For most of the last coaching era, these four names were known for their presence on the Illini defense and their departure leaves a massive hole.

ILB has some high-caliber players returning: Tarique Barnes and Calvin Hart, who we barely saw on the field in 2021 due to a 1st game injury.

OLB has the most questions. Seth Coleman is the clear replacement for Carney and Gay but after that production drops sharply. And since you need a second OLB who steps up? Ezekiel Holmes? Shammond Cooper? DJ Johnson?

Illinois looked like a premier team at the end of last season, ranking at the top of the B1G in pass defense and 3rd in pass defense efficiency.

Ryan Walters has 50 days to answer these questions and keep the momentum rolling for this rebuild.

I don’t know about you, but I'm pretty excited for 2022.