It is no secret that the main reason why the Fighting Illini football team didn't exactly excel on the field last season was the defense, and the lack of talent on that unit the past couple of seasons. In this, the second of three parts on previewing the 2014 Illinois Fighting Illini football season, I will be looking at the defense this time, and the transformation that is undergoing on that unit.
When Illinois head coach Tim Beckman decided to retain defensive coordinator Tim Banks at the end of last season, many people began to shake their heads in disbelief and wondered (some aloud, mind you) if Beckman's decision would ultimately cost him his job. Banks hasn't exactly been solid in running his unit, but the lack of talent may have something to do with that. Of the 22 players on the two-deep roster, 20 players return from last season, giving the Illini some much needed experience, as well as some added depth to the roster, as younger players fill in the necessary gaps. The two players that did not return, defensive lineman Tim Kynard and linebacker Jonathan Brown, both graduated. The defense, while still rather suspect, at least has a chance to improve on a very disappointing season in 2013.
Anchroing the defensive line are a cast of returning players from last season, including Austin Teitsma, Dawuane Smoot, Teko Powell and Kenny Nelson. Perhaps the best news regarding these four players is that Teitsma is the only senior in the group. Teitsma, a media favorite, plays with a lot of intensity on the field, and would like nothing more than to go out with a bowl appearance.
Much like Beckman did on the offensive side of the football, he went out and picked up some junior college players to help fill in needed gaps and bolster the experience on the line. One of the more intriguing players is Jihad Ward, who has quite a story himself about how he got to practice at Globe Tech in New York. Ward, who stands 6'6 and weighs 295 pounds, is a monster of a man, and seems to swallow up people in his path. Another player that Beckman brought in was Joe Fotu. Fotu came in at the start of the 2014 spring semester and participated in spring drills, so he is somewhat familiar with the types of schemes that Banks runs. The key to the success for the Illini this year will focus on this defensive line, but the linebacking corps also returns quite a few players, which can do nothing but aid in securing the middle of the defense.
Losing Jonathan Brown last season opened up a hole in the linebackers for the Illini, but they will have some key players back to help anchor the unit. Leading the charge will be junior Mason Monheim, who has started since he was a freshman. Monheim has gotten steadily better over the past two seasons, and is ready to take the next step and be a leader of the unit as a whole. Another linebacker, T. J. Neal, a sophomore, really came into his own last season and has picked up right where he left off so far at Camp Rantoul. During the first week of practice this fall, the Illini received some bad news when linebacker Mike Svetina sustained a foot injury and will be sidelined 8-10 weeks. Hoping to step up in Svetina's absence will be Kenny Nelson, a junior, or Ralph Cooper, who is finally getting a chance to show what he is made of in his final season of eligibility. The linebackers have not been the main issue on the defense over the past couple of years, and judging from the talent returning this season, they will continue to be one of the strong points.
It has often been said that is your secondary leads the team in tackles, then something on the interior line is seriously amiss. For the Fighting Illini in 2014, the secondary returns intact, and looks to improve even further than the strides that they took in 2013. Leading the way will be V'Angelo Bentley, who will be one of the cornerbacks when the defense lines up August 30th against Youngstown State. Other players of significance will be Caleb Day, Dillan Cazley, Zane Petty and Darius Mosley. Day, who came on at the end of last season, tweaked a hamstring during the week of practice at Rantoul, and may be slowed as a result. Petty, who came in last season as a juco player, looks to have another strong season, while Cazley and Mosley, both in their second seasons, both saw quite a bit of action last season as freshmen. Other players that may draw some name recognition will be Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, and Chris James. James, who was originally enrolled at Illinois until academics forced him to go the juco route, is back once again, and if he can keep his attention focused on academics intact, he may be a force to be reckoned with.
Next week, the third and final installment of the preview will focus on special teams, as well as game week preview of the Youngstown State game (8/30, 11:00 am, BTN). Stay tuned!