4. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ILLINOIS DEFENSE
– Ten starters return after a rough run. The Illini finished dead last in the Big Ten, allowing 508 yards and over 39 points per game – this isn’t exactly how it was supposed to work with a defensive head coach like Lovie Smith. But this is where the youth movement kicks in – almost every Illinois defensive player who made more than three tackles returns.
– The one missing piece is Del’Shawn Phillips from the linebacking corps, who tied with Jake Hansen for the team lead in tackles. Hansen is back on the outside, and there’s size inside with the 230-pound Dele Harding back after missing a little time last year. Washington transfer Milo Eifer and undersized 205-pound sophomore Delano Ware bring some speed to the group.
– Can the line hold up against anyone’s running game? Junior Bobby Roundtree was a factor at one end after leading the team with 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, but he suffered a horrific offseason spinal injury in a swimming accident. The hope is for USC grad transfer Oluwole Betiku to find a job either at the other end or in the linebacking corps. There’s beef inside with 330-pound Calvin Avery and 305-pound senior Jamal Milan, but now they have to be a wall.
– The pass defense was better than the run D, but it wasn’t a rock allowing 263 yards per game. The corners are potentially a big plus with junior Nate Hobbs and sophomore Quan Hobbs growing into jobs, and with star recruits Marquez Beason an instant factor. Safeties Tony Adams and Sydney Brown have talent their lumps and should be better with good depth behind them.