The top 10 Illinois football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. LB Hardy Nickerson, Sr.
Cal’s leading tackler last season came up with 111 stops with a sack and two tackles for loss after coming up with 133 tackles in his first two years. The son of the former NFL great of the same name – and the Illinois defensive coordinator – isn’t huge at 6-0 and 225 pounds, be he’s a whale of a hitter generating 11 or more tackles in five of his last six games with a 16-stop game against Arizona State. It’ll be his job to man the middle for a linebacking corps that desperately needs him.
2. QB Wes Lunt, Sr.
The former Oklahoma State super-recruit wasn’t the savior for the Illinois program he was expected to be, but there’s still time. The 6-5, 225-pound pro-style passer is a very smart, very talented bomber, but last year he only threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns with six picks – he didn’t have a whole bunch of help around him.
Staying healthy has been an issue throughout his career, but he was able to stay in one piece last year and started to pick it up at the end of the season. The team didn’t have the weapons, but he threw for 241 yards or more in each of his last three games and 200 or more in seven of the last nine. If he gets time to work – he’s a sitting duck – and if a few of the receiver emerge, he’s going to shine.
3. DE Dawuane Smoot, Sr.
Working like a bit of a hybrid on the outside, the 6-3, 265-pound senior blew up after showing good promise early on, cranking up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss with 40 tackles. With Jihad Ward gone, this is his line and he’s the star who’ll be keyed on, but as he showed this offseason, he looks ready to take his game to another level. Very quick and very active, he should hit the double-digit sack mark.
4. OT Austin Schmidt, Sr.
The line’s best all-around blocker, the senior is a consistent 6-6, 300-pound left tackle who helped the front five allow just 19 sacks. While the line needs to be stronger for the ground game, Schmidt should earn all-star honors on the outside.
5. RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Soph.
Josh Ferguson was supposed to be the star of the running game, but Vaughn took over as a freshman to lead the team in rushing. At 5-10 and 205 pounds, he’s got good size and the talent to be the workhorse of the ground game, showing off why he was such a big-time recruit.
2014’s Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year, is quick in the interior, but he didn’t come up with too many big runs. Even so, he came up with 723 yards and six scores – highlighted by a 180-yard, two score day against Purdue – and showed decent hands for the passing game, catching 16 passes for 119 yards.
6. SS Taylor Barton, Sr.
The veteran all-star finished fourth on the team with 56 tackles with four picks, and got into the backfield from time to time with three tackles for loss. At 6-1 and 215 pounds he’s got the size to bring the thump, and he knows how to attack the ball, but he’ll have to be a do-it-all leader as the only returning starter in the secondary. Ultra-consistent, he’s going to be a great building block to work the defense around.
7. DT Jarrod Clements, Sr.
Chunky – what everyone calls him, not his body type – was a good recruit who flew under the radar after getting hurt in his senior year, and now he’s about to blossom into a key to the defensive front with 6-3, 290-pound size and the quickness to get behind the line. He’s not necessarily an anchor, but he was strong at times against the run with 35 tackles to go along with his 11.5 tackles for loss – his real worth is as someone who collapses the interior.
8. QB Chayce Crouch, Soph.
He got his chances as a freshman adding a little bit of something different to the mix. He only completed 15-of-34 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns with a pick, but in his limited garbage time he ran for 96 yards and a score. At 6-4 and 225 pounds he’s got good size and enough experience to be able to step in if Wes Lunt gets hurt and keep the offense going. As is, he might see his share of time.
9. C Joe Spencer, Sr.
The 6-4, 300-pound man in the middle needs to be a stronger run blocker, but he’s a sound leader and a consistent starter making the call in 24 of the last 25 games. Tremendously smart – he’s an academic all-star – and a great leader on and off the field, he’s quick and he’s a good pass protector. Now he has to help the line generate more pop on the ground.
10. WR Malik Turner, Jr.
With star target Mike Dudek out another year with a knee injury, it’ll be up to the 6-3, 205-pound Turner to turn into more of a No. 1 target. He caught 39 passes for 510 yards and three scores highlighted by an 11-catch, 126-yard, one score day against Minnesota. It’ll be up to him and sophomore Desmond Cain to give the Illini a better receiving corps.