Freshman Jaylen Dunlap wants to make ‘senior plays’

True freshman cornerback Jaylen Dunlap has lofty goals for himself. 

“I want to be all-conference,” he said. “I want to be all-freshman. I want to make an impact on the team and make plays that seniors would make — seniors and juniors, not just on a freshman level.” 

Although he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to make an impact for Illinois on the field through five games, Dunlap has made the most of his opportunities — and more importantly, he’s impressed his coaches. 

“He has great football intelligence,” head coach Tim Beckman said. “I’ve coached corners a long time. He has great instincts and plays older than he is. You have to have those things to play that position.”

Dunlap is originally from Chicago and went to Crete-Monee High School, in Crete, Ill., where he had the opportunity to go up against one of the nation’s top wide receiver prospects, Laquon Treadwell, every day in practice. While scouts were coming to see Treadwell, they were getting a free look at Dunlap, too.

“Coaches would come and visit and wanted to see me and him go up against each other,” Dunlap said. “They wanted to see the best go up against the best.”

Dunlap said he learned a lot from going up against Treadwell, who is a freshman at Ole Miss, day-in and day-out. 

At Illinois, he and numerous other true freshman defenders have been able to see action on the field because the Illinois defense is so young and has struggled at times this season. Dunlap, who backs up sophomore cornerback V’Angelo Bentley, points to a key goal line stand against Washington in Week 3 as the moment that solidified him as a Big Ten defender.

On second and goal early in the game from the Illinois 7-yard line, Washington quarterback Keith Price targeted Dunlap as a weakness in the Illini defense. The first time Dunlap stopped Washington receiver Jaydon Mickens after just a 2-yard gain, and the second time Dunlap batted Price’s pass away, to force a field goal.

“That gave me confidence to know I can go up against seniors at big-time programs,” Dunlap said. “I don’t compare (myself) to any other freshman out there. I watch the all-conference corners, and I feel like I’m not there yet. That’s where I want to be.” 

Illinois was the only Big Ten school to offer Dunlap a scholarship, and it was the only school from a BCS conference to do so. He said he didn’t want to “sell himself short” by going to play in the Mid-American Conference. 

Beckman said that, with a struggling defense and seven games still to go, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dunlap found himself starting for the Illini later in the season. And defensive coordinator Tim Banks shares similar sentiments. 

“He’s smart, has great instincts, he’s not afraid to go out and play fearless,” said Banks, who himself was a cornerback. “I know it was a long time ago — when I was sexier — but being on the edge and playing corner, you’ve got to have something about you. You’ve got to have a short memory and have the ability to snap it clear when things go poorly. 

“He’s got that.” 

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.