Lovie Smith has one of the best defensive minds in all of football. He doesn’t have to coach a single college game to prove that.

Many expect that Smith will turn Illinois into one of the B1G’s best defenses and that more top defensive recruits will flock to Champaign. That could happen down the road. For now, Smith can only play the hand he was dealt with. Frankly, it wasn’t a very good one.

But with the news that Cal linebacker Hardy Nickerson will transfer to Illinois to play for his father (also Hardy Nickerson), Smith was dealt a wild card he needed badly for 2016. He’ll inject life into a unit that lacked experience and was the team’s biggest Achilles heel.

“A most unique opportunity presented itself when my father joined the Illinois football staff as their new defensive coordinator just last month,” Nickerson said in a release. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play my final year of college football for my father and head coach Lovie Smith, and it is an opportunity that I simply cannot pass up.”

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Yes, he will start. Yes, he will be the defensive coordinator’s favorite player.

One would assume that Nickerson would instantly become a leader on Illinois’ defense. He’ll take his 27 career starts and 246 tackles to Illinois, where he’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Here were Illinois’ top 3 leading tacklers last season:

  1. Clayton Fejedelem, S (140 tackles)
  2. T.J. Neal, LB  (109 tackles)
  3. Mason Monheim, LB (98 tackles)

You’ll notice that two of them were linebackers. Monheim graduated as one of the school’s seventh leading tackler while All-B1G honorable mention honoree Neal transferred to Auburn for his final season. Fejedelem, who basically played like a linebacker with how often he was in the box, is also gone.

So with that in mind, here are Illinois leading returning tacklers:

  1. Taylor Barton, S (56 tackles)
  2. Dawaune Smoot, DE (40 tackles)
  3. James Crawford, LB (36 tackles)
  4. Rob Bain, DL (36 tackles)
  5. Chunky Clements, DT (35 tackles)

You know what you only see one of on that list? A linebacker. That’s not good.

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After Neal transferred, Crawford was the only returning linebacker who played significant snaps in 2015. Oft-injured Mike Svetina will return after a missing half of the 2015 season. Other than that, Illinois’ linebacker  options are redshirt freshman Justice Williams, Austin Roberts (played in three games last year) and converted fullback Nathan Echard. Sophomore Julian Jones is suspended indefinitely because of an alleged aggravated assault charge. The rest of the options are true freshmen that will arrive this summer.

In other words, slim pickings.

Nickerson, on the other hand, is coming off his best season as Cal’s leading tackler. He earned honorable-mention All-Pac-12 honors after racking up 112 tackles, which was more than all of Illinois returning linebackers combined. Even better, he was a Defensive MVP and captain on a team that went 8-5 and won a bowl game.

Cal coach Sonny Dykes said he “hated” to lose Nickerson, but that he understood the situation. Yeah, I’d hate to lose my defensive MVP, too.

With Nickerson, Illinois has someone that will provide more immediate value in 2016 than a five-star recruit. He won’t have a learning curve playing for his dad, who he played for in his final two years of high school ball, too. He’ll step in right away and become the experienced, sure-tackler that Illinois lacked perhaps more than any other B1G team.

Nickerson’s addition will help establish the culture that Smith needs in his first year at Illinois. It’s hard to recruit defensive players if you have a group that’s getting lit up week in, week out.

Now, at the very least, Smith has a guy he can build his inexperienced group around.