The Daily Illini

Watson, Dunlap lead Illini defense into Big Ten Season

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Watson, Dunlap lead Illini defense into Big Ten Season

The Daily Illini

The Daily Illini

The Daily Illini

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

The Illinois football team had a surplus of senior leaders to turn to last year. That isn’t the case this season.

Through three games this season, the Illini have started two true freshman defensive ends, two true freshman cornerbacks and a true freshman at safety.

In their last game, the Illini had 25 players register defensive stats, and only three of them were seniors. And that number was inflated by wide receiver Malik Turner when making a tackle after an interception.

With so few games under their belts, the Illini defense has needed the few upperclassmen it has to step into leadership roles, and players like Jaylen Dunlap have been up to the challenge.

“I feel like its an expectation of me,” Dunlap said. “And it’s an expectation of my own. I feel that I have to come out and perform every day because I have all the younger guys looking at me.”

Dunlap returned from injury to play against South Florida, and while the results may not have been ideal, the Illini are glad to have him back on the field. Dunlap’s injury thrust freshmen Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams into bigger roles than they were expecting in the first two games, and Hobbs admitted that it felt a bit like he had been thrown to the wolves.

With Dunlap back in the mix, Hobbs and Adams have the opportunity to be able to settle into more comfortable roles and continue to improve.

Junior Tré Watson has also been asked to step up by Illinois coaches. Watson has been Illinois’ linebacker this season, a spot that makes him the de facto leader of the defense. Since taking over the spot from Hardy Nickerson, Watson has led the defense by example on the field, racking up 23 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception through three games.

But Watson also knows that he has a role to play off the field. The coaches can only teach the players so much when there are five of them to handle the entire Illinois defense. But to fill in the gaps the coaches can’t reach, they turn to players like Watson.

“A coach’s job is to coach,” Watson said. “They’re not really there to be the inspiring ones, to be the one who is a voice all of the time. I can answer questions about the scheme, I can give tips and those type of things, and that’s a player-run thing.”

While Watson and Dunlap have seen these Big Ten teams before and know what to expect from them, they instead are choosing to focus internally on helping the younger players develop themselves.

“At the end of the day it’s about us and perfecting our technique,” Dunlap said. “I don’t try to say ‘we’re going into Big Ten play, so we’ve gotta do this or they’re gonna do this.’ We have to come out here and whoever we are about to play, whether it’s Ball State or Nebraska, we’ve gotta get better.”

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