While the Illinois Fighting Illini look to limp back from a 4-8 season and make a bid a bowl game in 2014, the defense is going to have take leaps and bounds forward in the process. If last year’s defense is any sort of indication as to what this season will look like, though, it could be yet another tough 12-game stretch to take in.
That’s because Illinois’ defense is severely lacking in the play-making department. Two players in 2013 recorded 10.5 or more tackles for loss — defensive end/linebacker Houston Bates and linebacker Jonathan Brown. But after Bates opted to transfer in the offseason and Brown expired his eligibility, the Illini are left what looks to be a very bland defensive unit in 2014.
Much of last season’s defense remains intact — Illinois’ secondary didn’t lose a single player — but there isn’t any sign of a spark to come, meaning all this returning “talent” won’t very well resemble a group that has stuck together.
Two names stick out when talking about guys who could possibly step up this season and make something of themselves in this mess of a defense: nose tackle Austin Teitsma and middle linebacker Mason Monheim. Teitsma in particular stands out as a candidate because of the semi-aggressive numbers he posted in 2013, and the position on either side of him has been vacated.
Monheim steps into his junior season as a linebacker who easily has the best track record of those remaining. He recorded 69.5 tackles last season, including 6.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Unless a guy like junior college transfer Carroll Phillips steps up, Monheim could be working a heavy solo job at linebacker in 2014.
The secondary, though in full force, is still looking for a partner in crime to go alongside standout Earnest Thomas III, who ranked seventh in the Big 10 last season with 79.0 tackles and forced three fumbles. It’s a bit concerning to see a strong safety record so many tackles because it’s a very obvious indicator of how well the front seven is performing in its duties. His role in 2014 will very likely involve supporting the defense in the run game, which puts a clamp on his skills as a defender in the secondary.
Illinois is in desperate need of a player, preferably a defensive lineman or linebacker, who can become a big playmaker in 2014 and help erase the losses of two of the most productive defenders of last season’s squad. It looks like a stretch with the current roster, but it only takes a little spark to ignite a flame.