Better or worse? Previewing Illinois' defense in 2022
Illinois’ defense found some success while battling through growing pains in Bret Bielema’s first season.
Specifically, the Illini won low-scoring slugfests over Penn State and Minnesota on the way to a 5-7 record. They finished 6th in the Big Ten and 29th in the country in points allowed, giving up 21.9 per game. That’s something to build on as Bielema aims to end the program’s string of 10 straight losing seasons.
The overall numbers in 2021 landed in the middle of B1G pack: Illinois was 8th in total defense (367.0 ypg), 7th in pass defense (215.2), 9th against the run (215.2), 5th in sacks (31) and 8th in INTs (9). That’s not bad for a team using a new alignment under a new coaching staff.
The defense held 4 of its final 5 opponents to 20 points or less, carrying an offense that finished 116th in the nation in scoring points.
Now, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has had another offseason to fully implement his 3-4 scheme. With plenty of players returning to offset a couple of key losses, Walters and his charges will try to take the next step. Can they?
Pressuring the QB: Better
DEs Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton are back to anchor the defensive line after combining for 7.5 sacks last year as RS freshmen. The Illini also got a combined 5 sacks out of 3 LBs, and Tarique Barnes (2 sacks in ’21), Seth Coleman (2) and Calvin Hart Jr. (1) all return as projected starters.
The main loss is Owen Carney Jr., the edge-rushing LB who led the team with 6 sacks. The main question mark is at NT, where RS junior Verdis Brown (4 tackles, no sacks in ’21) and Northwestern transfer TeRah Edwards (a RS freshman) likely will compete for snaps.
Considering that the front 7 is loaded with experienced RS sophomores and juniors, progress certainly seems possible — maybe even probable.
Run defense: Better
In addition to the players already mentioned, Illinois also has linebackers Ezekiel Holmes and Isaac Darkangelo returning, along with defensive backs Sidney Brown, Devin Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, Kendall Smith and Tahveon Nicholson.
Brown led the Illini with 81 tackles last year and Barnes had 80, so those two should anchor their levels of the defense this year. There’s returning depth behind them, as Witherspoon (52 tackles), Newton (50) and Randolph (42) all made significant contributions last year.
Illinois also returns players responsible for more than half of last year’s 70 TFLs, though it will miss Isaiah Gay, who led the team with 10.
The losses of both Jake Hansen (274 tackles, 8.0 sacks, and 28.5 TFLs from 2016-21) and Carney (112, 14.5, and 19.0 from 2017-21) will be felt in all departments. But Illinois still returns plenty of talent, including 5 of its top 7 tacklers.
One person I’m eager to see take the field is redshirt freshman linebacker Alec Bryant, a transfer from Virginia Tech who sat out last season.
He transferred because the Hokies depth chart was stacked at the position. But he has the potential to be a disruptive force on this defense, as he posted 103 tackles, 22 sacks, 35 TFLs and 4 forced fumbles over his final 2 years at Shadow Creek High School in Texas.
Pass defense: Worse
Safety Kerby Joseph went to the Lions in the third round of the NFL Draft, the only Illinois defensive player from last season to get selected. He’s gone after 4 years in the Orange and Blue, leaving behind his 5 INTs and 57 tackles from a year ago. Fellow safety Tony Adams is also gone, leaving a 63-tackle void.
In losing the 2 safeties, Illinois loses its 3rd- and 4th-leading tacklers and 6 of last year’s 9 INTs, not to mention a ton of experience.
There are players primed to step up, though. Witherspoon had a team-leading 9 pass deflections last year. All told, returning players accounted for 29 of 42 deflected passes last year. That’s a lot of returning production. It’s just not as proven as Joseph and Adams.
Special teams: Worse
There’s a changing of the guard at the punter position. After having the luxury of Blake Hayes for the previous 5 seasons (326 punts for a 43.8-yard average in 57 career games), Illinois is now hitting the reset button with 2 interesting prospects. Redshirt freshman Fabrizio Pinton transferred from the Air Force academy, but the Texas native has yet see game action. That will change this year. But he’ll be splitting the reps with one of his new teammates.
Former Australian Rules Football player Hugh Robertson is a redshirt sophomore who’s entering his 3rd season in Champaign, but he hasn’t seen the field since 2020. In that season, he registered a 38-yard punt against Penn State in relief of an injured Hayes. The Melbourne native graduated from his Australian high school in 2011, and at 29 years old he’s the oldest player on the roster. He also served in the military and spent time as a police officer in his native land.
He lived quite the life before committing to Illinois, and now Robertson will play a major role for this rebuilding Illini team. The only question that needs to be answered is will the team rotate punters for the foreseeable future, or will one of these men step up and grab the job full-time.
The punter’s position aside, the Fighting Illini have plenty of potential heading into this season. The experienced players that are still on the roster give Illinois a huge upside, and that will be vital especially when it comes to conference play. Remember, Bielema’s teams have been successful in Year 2 everywhere that he’s coached. And that aspect combined with the talent at his disposal gives me hope that Illinois will only continue to get better.
The Fighting Illini may not be a top 5 defense in the B1G this season, but the foundation to get to that point is there.