Illinois: Beyond the Box Score Defensive Preview

Yesterday we previewed an offense that lost its two marquee names but still has hopes for improvement.  Now we move on to a defense that almost has no CHOICE but to improve.

Defense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 87th

S&P+: 75th
Success Rate+: 89th
PPP+: 64th

Standard Downs S&P+: 89th
Passing Downs S&P+: 92nd

Redzone S&P+: 81st

Q1 S&P+: 58th
Q2 S&P+: 66th
Q3 S&P+: 96th
Q4 S&P+: 115th

1st Down S&P+: 98th
2nd Down S&P+: 74th
3rd Down S&P+: 89th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 97th
Rushing SR+: 109th
Rushing PPP+: 81st

Standard Downs: 91st
Passing Downs: 113th

Redzone: 100th

Adj. Line Yards: 82nd

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 62nd
Passing SR+: 58th
Passing PPP+: 69th

Standard Downs: 88th
Passing Downs: 71st

Redzone: 62nd

Adj. Sack Rate: 75th
SD Sack Rate: 68th
PD Sack Rate: 91st


Juice Williams was something of a scapegoat for last year's Illinois team, but it's clearly not his fault that a defense that was reasonably fast and athletic for a few years, fell off the face of the earth in 2009.  There is literally almost nothing positive that can be said about this unit -- they were among the worst-ranked BCS-conference defenses, they were terrible on both standard downs and passing downs, they got worse as the game progressed, they were just wreteched against the run, and they were a sieve in the red zone.

By comparison, there is one positive thing that can be said: in all, the secondary wasn't terrible.  It wasn't good, but with no help from the run defense and the pass rush, their numbers could have been worse.

But any time "could have been worse" is the closest to a compliment you can get, things were in pretty bad shape.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A 52 33 33 87
S&P+ 104 53 22 31 75
Success Rate+ 96 36 33 35 89
PPP+ 102 67 17 35 64
Rushing S&P+ 93 36 33 39 97
Passing S&P+ 103 75 18 34 62
Standard Downs S&P+ 88 45 39 23 89
Passing Downs S&P+ 102 51 41 72 92
Adj. Line Yards 75 11 43 26 82
Adj. Sack Rate 108 66 18 13 75

Illinois was in the Top 40 in almost every category in 2007 and 2008 -- they suffered a few too many breakdowns on passing downs in 2008, but otherwise this was a solid unit. Seemingly the biggest culprit for the complete and utter collapse in 2009 was a defensive line that went from Top 26 in both line yards and sack rates to 75th or worse in both categories.  I thought maybe the loss of Vontae Davis (to the NFL) or Martez Wilson (to injury) would be the biggest blow, but that's not what it looks like here.

No matter what the cause, the defense completed a total regression, almost all the way back to 2005 levels, when Zook took over the program.

Defensive Line

Nurse certainly looks the part

2009 Unit Ranking: 93rd in the country (11th in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
DE Clay Nurse (6'3, 260, Sr., 25.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 QB Hurries)
DT Cory Liuget (6'3, 300, Jr., 25.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 QB Hurries)
DT Wisdom Onyegbule (6'3, 280, Jr., 0.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks)
DE Whitney Mercilus (6'3, 265, So., 6.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks)
DE Michael Buchanan (6'6, 225, So., 1 QB Hurry)
DE Nate Palmer (6'3, 220, So., 1.5 tackles)
DT Glenn Foster (6'4, 260, So.)
DT Akeem Spence (6'1, 305, RSFr.)

Here's what I had to say about the defensive line in last summer's preview:

The highest-ranked, most athletic unit on the Illini defense in 2008, the defensive line faces having to replace starting DEs Derek Walker and Will Davis and DT David Lindquist.  The athleticism is still there, but the depth is not. ...  This unit is still the likely strength of the defense, but there's more uncertainty here than there was last year.

Yeah, whoops.  Instead of being a relative strength, the defensive line collapsed from 23rd in my 2008 unit rankings to 93rd last season.  Josh Brent was not as much of a difference maker as hoped, and now it looks like he probably won't be academically eligible this fall; meanwhile, athletic end Jerry Brown struggled with academics and fell off of last year's roster.  Doug Pilcher and Cory Liuget were decent, but far from the play-makers they were supposed to be, and the unit as a whole ... well, it was just bad.  Bad at rushing the passer, bad at standing up to run-blocking, everything.  The replacement of three starters from 2008 was just too much to overcome, and there is really no reason to think this season's unit will be any better.  Clay Nurse was a pleasant surprise last year, but if he's your best lineman, you've probably got issues.

Linebackers

Thomas is steady if unspectacular

2009 Unit Ranking: 105th in the country (11th in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
Ian Thomas (6'0, 240, Jr., 76.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FR, 1 QB Hurry)
Martez Wilson (6'4, 250, Jr., 55.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 2 FR, 5 QB Hurries in 2008)
Nate Bussey (6'2, 220, Sr., 36.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF)

Russell Ellington (6'2, 235, Jr., 32.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 3 QB Hurries)
Evan Frierson (6'2, 230, So., 15.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks)
Ashante Williams (5'10, 205, So., 7.5 tackles, 1 QB Hurry)

The Illinois LB corps tumbled from 60th to 105th in the unit rankings, though this one is a little more understandable -- their anchor, Martez Wilson, missed the final 11 games of the season with a herniated disk in his neck.  Of course, if you look at his 2008 stats, you see that he is a solid linebacker, but not a great one -- chances are, this unit would have struggled significantly even with him.

With a defensive line that was failing to make plays, Illinois' linebackers needed to be better than just serviceable, but Ian Thomas' line of 76 tackles and only 4.5 for loss (with no forced fumbles or anything else disruptive on the ledger) is pretty much the definition of "serviceable linebacker."  If Wilson can come back and improve, this unit gets better by default, but it is hard to see how much improvement is in the cards.  Adding together the stats from the three likely starters, you see that COMBINED they made less than one tackle for loss per game and forced only two fumbles.  That's not good.

Secondary

Wilson and Hawthorne are the best things this defense has going for it

2009 Unit Ranking: 57th in the country (7th in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
CB Tavon Wilson (6'0, 205, Jr., 65.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU)
CB Terry Hawthorne (6'0, 185, So., 26.5 tackles, 1 INT, 5 PBU)
SS Travon Bellamy (6'0, 205, Sr., 22.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks)
FS Supo Sanni (6'3, 220, Jr., 9.0 tackles, 1 PBU)
SS Walt Aikens (6'1, 180, So., 29.0 tackles, 2 PBU)
CB Antonio Gully (6'1, 190, Sr., 4.0 tackles)
CB Patrick Nixon-Youman (5'10, 175, So., 0.5 tackles)
FS Trulon Henry (6'2, 225, Jr.)

If there was a bright side to the mess of 2009, it is that the secondary began to show some promise later in 2009.  Now, "promise" isn't "quality," but it's a start.  For the first six games, Illinois' per-game Passing S&P+ was 86.2 (100 = average, >100 = good).  Over the last six games, it improved to 96.3.  With six non-seniors in the projected two-deep, that's something upon which Illinois hopes to build.

Terry Hawthorne, another former Mizzou recruit, was a bit of an athletic revelation, primarily because of this play which helped Illinois eventually break open the Michigan game.  (That video also shows you the best sequence the Illinois D-line had all season as well.)  He still has a lot to learn about the position -- it seemed an assumption that he would end up a WR instead of a DB -- but the more of a role he played in the pass defense, the better the pass defense became.  Between Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson, I think we can safely say that CB is the best overall position on the Illinois defense.  (And against a Mizzou team that will pass a lot but doesn't necessarily know what it's going to have the opening weekend of the season, there are worse strengths to have.)

Safety is a bit of a concern, at least compared to cornerback.  Travon Bellamy, Supo Sanni and Walt Aikens all got playing time last year, and none of them really did anything with it.

Special Teams

Dimke could make UI's kicking game much more of a strength

2009 Unit Rankings: 107th in the country (11th in the Big Ten)

96th Place Kicking
58th Net Punting
75th Kick Coverage
116th Returns

Projected Starters
K Derek Dimke (6'0, 180, Jr., 5-for-5 FG, long: 48, 12-for-12 PAT)
P Anthony Santella (6'2, 190, Sr., 63 punts, 41.3 avg.)
KR Troy Pollard (5'8, 190, Jr., 16 returns, 20.4 avg.)
PR Jarred Fayson (6'0, 215, Sr., 7 returns, 5.9 avg.)

It is always an extra punch in the gut when you are a bad team that needs some breaks to stay in ballgames ... and you have one of the worst special teams units in the country giving you almost nothing but more bad breaks.  The Illinois special teams unit struggled in just about every facet last season, though they may have eventually found a place-kicker.  Derek Dimke was perfect in replacing Matt Eller, who had gone 4-for-11 on field goals.  If he turns out to be a strong kicker, then that alleviates one of their two biggest weaknesses.  The other might remain a problem.  Neither Troy Pollard nor Arrelious Benn provided much of a threat as kick returners (their longest was a 40-yarder by Benn), but they still ranked better than Jarred Fayson and Jack Ramsey, who averaged just 4.2 yards per punt return.  (Of course, Jack Ramsey is far too old to be returning punts if you ask me.)

In all, this unit is experienced, though that might not be a good thing -- new blood is clearly needed at the return positions, and we will see if anybody steps up there.

Summary

If you are attempting to paint an optimistic picture about the Illinois defense, you could certainly point out that the corners could be very good, and the front seven should improve simply by default.  In theory, Illinois should see incremental improvement in both offense, defense, and special teams.  That is a good thing, but only two of their nine losses last season were by a touchdown or less.  Incremental improvement might not get the job done -- they were very far from being a strongly competitive team.

The best case scenario for Illinois this is year is probably something like what 2002 Mizzou managed.  A redshirt freshman quarterback showed promise, and an awful defense improved a bit.  They still went only 5-7, but a) they showed promise for the future, and b) they upset Illinois in the opener.  This could be a season where Illinois looks very good at times, but the glimpses of hope fade for a game or two at a time.  We will get into their projections on Friday, but for now I will just say that getting Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota all at home could do wonders for their W-L record.  I don't see them bowling, but getting to 5-7 or so certainly isn't out of the question.  Is that enough improvement to keep Zook around?  I can't really answer that, as I'm still a bit surprised he's still around for 2010.

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