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Illinois’ defense is stacked — and can take this team far

This unit should be elite again.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 ReliaQuest Bowl Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Big Ten West is known for its great defenses. There’s nothing better than the national media’s reaction to a October game between two B1G West teams ending with a sickening 9-6 score.

With the way the Illini defense played last season, it felt like most of the time all the offense had to do was score nine points.

#1 in points allowed. #8 in passing yards allowed. #10 in rushing yards allowed. #3 in total yards allowed. #1 in turnovers. #1 in interceptions. I could go on forever.

Now, some of the key pieces are gone. Witherspoon, Brown, and Martin all drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. But as you know, some of the key pieces have returned to Champaign

Let’s take a look at the 2023 Illini defense.

Defensive Line

The Law Firm returning to Champaign could be as important as Ayo and Kofi returning in 2020.

Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph will headline both the defensive line and the defense as a whole.

The two preseason All-Americans are receiving an immense amount of hype from the media and for good reason. Newton projects to be a first round pick next April and Randolph will also certainly be drafted.

TeRah Edwards projects to be a key piece alongside the Law Firm this season. Edwards had 14 tackles, 1.5 TFL, and one fumble recovery in his first season in the program last year.

Bryce Barnes, Denzel Daxon, and Sed McConnell all look to be rotational pieces on this star-studded D-line.

Linebackers

The linebackers feel like a slightly overlooked position group to me.

Tarique Barnes, Seth Coleman, and Gabe Jacas will lead the way for this group.

Barnes has been a starter at inside linebacker for a majority of the last two seasons. He’s totaled 126 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception since 2021.

Barnes has been named a captain, alongside the Law Firm and will provide fantastic veteran leadership.

Seth Coleman will start at outside linebacker once again this season. Coleman has steadily gotten better through his first three years in the program.

He was great in 2022, with 45 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 12 starts. Coleman should do great things in year four as more of a focal point on this defense.

The college football world should know the name Gabe Jacas if everything goes to plan for the Illini this season.

36 total tackles and four sacks probably isn't going to put you in the Hall of Fame, but putting up those numbers as a true freshman is outstanding and that’s why Jacas was named a freshman All-American in 2022.

If Jacas can build on his freshman season, the Illini defense will be in phenomenal shape and he’ll be a Day 1 pick in the future.

Alec Bryant, Ezekiel Holmes, and Kenenna Odeluga look to provide some solid depth for this nasty front seven.

Secondary

No team in the country had a better secondary than the orange and blue last year. Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, and the rest of the crew helped make football fun again in Champaign.

Those guys are on to bigger and better things now. Even defensive backs coach Aaron Henry moved on...to Illini defensive coordinator.

There are obviously some question marks with this group as it’s nearly impossible to replace three NFL guys in one offseason.

Taz Nicholson appears to be the headliner of this position group in 2023. He received great experience last year playing behind some elite players as mentioned before.

A breakout year for Nicholson at cornerback is very possible.

Matthew Bailey is a very exciting prospect at safety. He’ll likely miss the first few games of the season due to injury, but could be a starter when he returns.

Bailey tallied ten tackles, three interceptions, and one fumble recovery in his true freshman season last year. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

Xavier Scott and Tyler Strain look to be in line for most of the rest of the work at corner in 2023.

Transfers Demetrius Hill, Kaleb Patterson, and Nicario Harper are due for significant playing time as well. Hill was a freshman All-American at FIU this past season.

A couple more intriguing pieces include former WR Miles Scott who transitioned into a DB this offseason, and true freshman Saboor Karriem.

Oh, and Jim Leonhard is on the staff now. It should be another fun year at Memorial Stadium.