Illinois Fighting Illini Spring Practice Preview: Defense

By Scott Peceny
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini went 2-10 last season, but to blame the defense wouldn’t be fair. The defense was by no means spectacular, ranking 54th in the country, but it was the offense’s inability to score that plagued the Illini.

The offense’s struggles put even more pressure on a defensive unit that also had to deal with injuries and inexperience last season. Looking ahead to 2013, the defensive unit will lose several seniors, but several key players will also be returning.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown is regarded as this defense’s best player and will return for his senior season for the Illini. Brown battled injuries last season, but he will be healthy and ready to lead this Illinois defense come September.

The Illini also get their leading tackler back in middle linebacker Mason Monheim. Monheim was just a freshman a year ago when he anchored the middle of Illinois’ defense, recording 89 tackles. Monheim should only get better with a year of experience under his belt and another offseason to learn defensive coordinator Tim Banks’ system.

In the secondary, the Illini will be very young. They lose three starters, with strong safety Earnest Thomas being the only returning starter. This is a potential weakness for Illinois, and Banks (who works with the secondary in addition to handling his duties as defensive coordinator) has his work cut out for him.

As for the front four, they must completely reload. The D-line’s biggest loss occurred when Akeem Spence declared for the NFL Draft. Spence is considered one of the top DT prospects in the draft, and his presence will be missed in Champagne. Defensive end Tim Kynard will be the only guy on Illinois’ defensive line with much experience next season. Kynard, a senior, will have to step up and be a leader on the front four if the Illini hope to pressure the quarterback at all.

Illinois does have a four-star recruit coming in at defensive end in Paul James III. James is a guy that Illinois is excited about and could be an impact player right away for the Illini.

The Illini have to rebuild this offseason, but they have a nucleus of players that they can rely on to help the newer guys step in and feel comfortable in their new roles.

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