A Peek At Next Year – The Defense January 11, 2013
Tuesday night I covered The Offense. Today, let’s tackle the defense. Or at least find a defense that can tackle.
Can I start with the linebackers? I’m starting with the linebackers. I don’t want to think about the line or the secondary yet. Or even the hybrid backers. Let’s start with happy thoughts. And for the Illini defense next fall, the only real happy thoughts I have center around the MLB and WLB positions.
Starters will be Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim. I think that’s pretty much a lock. And, like this post, the entire defense needs to be built around them. If I was Tim Banks, my 2013 defense would be “funnel every ballcarrier to Bad News Brown and the Monheim Steamroller”.
Brown’s junior season was defined by injuries. He left a September game with an ankle injury (I want to say the Louisiana Tech game?) and then hobbled around as a backup through the first few Big Ten games, splitting time with true freshman Mike Svetina. Tim Beckman declared him healthy for the Indiana game, but he only played the IU game (his best performance of the season) and the Ohio State game before injuring his shoulder and missing the final three games of the season.
If his shoulder and his ankle are 100%, Brown can return to being our best defensive player. Pair him with Monheim – who was Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice last fall – and we have a very solid inside ‘backer combo. And there’s depth, too. Henry Dickinson returns after missing the entire season with a broken leg. When I asked Vic Koenning in San Francisco to pick out the future stars of this defense, he pointed to Dickinson and Darrius Caldwell. So even if we face more injuries, we have Dickinson back for depth. And Mike Svetina, who started six games while Brown was out. And then there’s Ralph Cooper and Zeph Grimes. And also TJ Neal coming off his redshirt year. From all of that, we’ll be able to put together an upper-tier Big Ten linebacking corps.
OK, that’s it! A preview of the entire 2013 Illini defense! This was fun.
Alright, fine. At the hybrid linebacker position (Star), we lost both the starter (Ashante Williams) and the future starter (TaJarvis Fuller who was kicked off the team in September). So that left us to go find a Star in the Juco ranks. The guy we found was Eric Finney, which is great, but the learning curve for a Juco safety to become a Big Ten hybrid ‘backer will be steep. His backup will be redshirt freshman BJ Bello.
On the defensive line, we lost every starter. OK, maybe 3 1/2, because Justin Staples (graduated) and Tim Kynard (returning senior) each started six games last year. Kynard will start at one defensive end (with redshirt sophomore Kenny Nelson backing him up). At the weakside defensive end (Leo), Darrius Caldwell steps in to replace Michael Buchanan. Caldwell will be a great one… in 2014 and 2015. This year he’s probably still too green.
At defensive tackle, Glenn Foster graduated and Akeem Spence is off to the NFL, so I think Austin Teitsma will be the 3-tech DT, and it’s probably a Rantoul battle for nose tackle between junior Jake Howe (played in four games last year but then broke his arm and missed the rest of the season) and Juco Abens Cajuste (probably the best of the five Jucos we signed in December). The fourth guy is likely Teko Powell (we burned his redshirt last year after Howe went down), with Vontrell Williams and maybe even one of the true freshman contributing a little bit.
So for the defensive line, yeah, um, we’re young, but at least we’re inexperienced.
Did someone say inexperienced? Hey, let’s talk secondary! Gone are Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green, Supo Sanni, Patrick Nixon Youman, and Jack Ramsey. Many times last year, when we went to the nickel, those were the five secondary guys on the field. What are we left with? Steve Hull (not sure he’ll ever be able to keep his shoulder in its socket when he makes a tackle) and Earnest Thomas (I’ma call him Bites McRunsupport because he was pretty solid against the run but would bite on any fake an opposing offensive coordinator would give him.) (I’m not really going to call him that.)
I’m really not sure if Hull will be able to play again (how many times did he re-injure his shoulder last year? Five? Eight?). So I’m going to start Earnest Thomas at strong safety and then put Juco Zane Petty at free safety. Why? Because the only other options are freshmen. At corner, well, we don’t have any juniors or seniors (seriously – no junior or senior cornerbacks on the entire roster). So the starters are redshirt sophomore Eaton Spence (who I really like in run support – I’d love to see him in a Tavon Wilson nickel corner role) and true sophomore V’Angelo Bentley (who I really like when trailing a receiver – if he was five inches taller I’d be predicting him as an NFL player some day). The problem – Bentley isn’t five inches taller and both he and Spence will be learning-on-the-job sophomores. Their backups will all be freshmen – redshirt frosh Javaris Little and true freshmen like Darius Mosely (who moves onto campus today) or Reon Dawson (who visits Michigan this weekend and hopefully doesn’t flip).
So… yeah. Young. Really young. The good news is, Kynard and Brown will be the only seniors, so this defense will return everyone and possibly be really solid in 2014. The bad news: they have to play 12 learn-on-the-job games first.