Illinois defense overview: Bielema looks to turn around struggling unit

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen practices during day 2 of training camp Aug. 6. Coach Bret Bielema hopes to better the defensive unit before the start of the season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

After previewing the Illini offense last week, it’s time to take a look at the other side of the ball and preview a defense returning many familiar faces but changing in schematics.

Starting at the top, head coach Bret Bielema has most recently run a 3-4 defense at the end of his time at Arkansas and coached the same scheme while with the New England Patriots. It’s likely that Bielema will opt for a 3-4 this season, which may make a major difference after Illinois ran a largely unsuccessful 4-3 defense under Lovie Smith. The difference between the two schemes is the number of linemen/linebackers utilized, with a 3-4 scheme using three linemen and four linebackers.

At defensive coordinator, Bielema brought in Ryan Walters, who coached a 3-4 scheme at Missouri last season to extensive success. Last year, Missouri landed 14th in the NCAA and third in the SEC in overall defense, including a top 10 pass defense in the NCAA. If the Illini defense is to improve, it will have to come through Bielema and Walters’ changes, as the defensive roster remained mostly stagnant in the offseason.

At nose tackle, the Illini will probably stick with senior Roderick Perry II, who had an excellent 2020 season, garnering an All-Big Ten honorable mention from media and coaches. Junior Calvin Avery sits behind him after playing a solid backup role last season, including two starts while Perry was injured.

Defensive end, however, may feature some new players due to the schematic shift. Owen Carney Jr. and Isaiah Gay may both shift to outside linebacker, clearing the path for less experienced players like redshirt freshman Keith Randolph Jr. and redshirt junior Deon Pate to see playing time at defensive end.

Jer’Zhan Newton and Jamal Woods will likely continue splitting time at defensive tackle this season. Woods battled injuries last season, while Newton had a successful campaign as a true freshman, including two starts and playing in all eight games. With strong momentum behind him, Newton could be in position to make another leap this season and play a lion’s share of the snaps as a starter.

Under a 3-4, there will be more pressure on the front three linemen to slow the opposing line, but in return the Illini will have measurably more flexibility with an extra linebacker. However, the shift leaves the aforementioned Carney and Gay without a home as linemen. As talented football players, regardless of position, both are listed at outside linebacker heading into the season and both will likely see reps as starters. Carney, who has started dozens of games for the Illini over his career, received All-Big Ten Second-Team honors last season, while Gay was no slouch himself, registering 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

Jake Hansen will look to feature as a star on the Illinois defense at middle linebacker after an elite 2020 season. Hansen stuffed the stat sheet with 68 tackles, including 10 tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, earning himself an All-Big Ten Second-Team nod from the media and a Third-Team one from coaches.

At the other middle linebacker slot, junior Khalan Tolson and sophomore transfer Calvin Hart Jr. will contend for playing time. Tolson started six games last season and recorded 39 tackles, while Hart recorded 35 tackles for North Carolina State.

Devon Witherspoon will provide some continuity at cornerback after starting seven games last year, but the departure of Nate Hobbs has opened up the other starting role. Senior Tony Adams may get the nod, as he was initially a corner during his freshman and sophomore years before switching to safety and defensive back.

Illinois will boast continuity at safety with the return of junior Sydney Brown, who started six games last season and ten in 2019. He’ll most likely slot in as the strong safety, while Jartavius Martin may be the go-to free safety.

Last season was a rough one for the Illini defensively, with the team ranking dead last in the Big Ten in rush defense and eighth in pass defense. Illinois didn’t lose much roster-wise in the offseason, with the most notable departure likely being that of Hobbs, which may serve as cause for concern about an already weak pass defense. However, almost everything else remained in place, so continuity, combined with new leadership and schemes, will need to be the Illini’s formula for success at reviving a struggling defense.

Bielema will only get one chance at a first impression when the Illini open their season on Aug. 28 against Nebraska, but with weak results last season, the only direction for the Illinois defense to go is up.

@WesHollenberg

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