Of all the things that broke or went haywire during Ron Zook's tenure at Illinois, the last possible hold out was the defense. The defense flipped the switch in 2010 when Vic Koening took over and sustained that impressive play through 2011 despite the offense going completely AWOL over the last half of the season. That 2011 unit was seventh in the nation in yards per game allowed and 16th in points per game. In the end, a staunch defense was almost literally all there was left; the offense being nothing more than a smoldering crater where Nathan Scheelhaase used to take shotgun snaps and turn them into, you know, what are those things Illinois used to gain? That's right, yards.
Upon the arrival of Tim Beckman and his staff, including Tim Banks as the new defensive coordinator (previous experience as DC: CMU and Cincinnati), it seemed like defense would have to once again be the saving grace as Beckman installed his offense. The play makers were there. Defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence returned, as did linebacker Jonathon Brown and corner Terry Hawthorne. All four were all-Big Ten/NFL draft level talents that had helped lead the last two strong defensive campaigns.
Still, things worked out poorly for Illinois. The Illini gave up 45 points or more in five games and only held Western Michigan, Minnesota, and Purdue under 30 points (no, Charleston Southern doesn't count). While the anemic offense didn't help, Illinois rarely found a way to stop the bleeding, en route to a number of lopsided losses.
This year, things don't look much better as three of the players mentioned above are all gone, taken in the NFL draft in April, and Illinois must make due with what is left.
The defensive line will take a big hit, losing not only end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence but also Glenn Foster. There is very little left on the roster in terms of past production. One of the more promising young players on the roster, Darius Caldwell, was kicked off the team for a rules violation. That leaves Tim Kynard as the one experienced option on the line. Freshmen Robbie Bain had a good spring game and should factor into the playing time discussion for no other reason than someone has to. The Illinois official roster lists just nine players right now on the defensive line. That is a terrifying lack of depth that could come back to haunt the Illini sooner rather than later.
Thankfully, the linebackers seem to be a solid group. Once again, Johnathan Brown will lead the defense. It will be his third year as a starter and fourth year of total experience. Brown has been a very good outside linebacker for Illinois, pacing the rest of the team last year in TFLs with 9.5 and having a monster year as a sophomore with 19.5 TFLs and 6.0 sacks. With so little proven production on the defensive line, it will most likely fall to Brown to carry the weight of disrupting opposing offenses with big plays.
Mason Monheim also returns in the middle for Illinois after a promising freshman season. He should be a steady presence on the defense after leading in total tackles a year ago. Illinois will need to replace its linebacker/safety hybrid Ashante Williams, but none of the three players listed at that position on the roster have much in the way of meaningful game experience.
In the secondary there isn't much experience, but redshirt freshman Taylor Barton showed some promise in spring practice and Juco transfer Zane Petty has proven himself at the lower level. Both could find themselves starting in the secondary. Someone will have to with Suppo Sanni and Steve Hull both gone from the roster. At corner everything is still a mess of inexperience and walk-ons.
Overall, it is hard to get too excited for this unit. Illinois was bad at defense a year ago and now loses a handful of its most dependable players off that unit.
While the team should be strong at linebacker, there is little the second line of defense can do behind a sieve of a defensive line, and given the extreme lack of depth along the Illinois defensive front it is hard to see the team developing much in the way of a constant run stopping defense or pass rush. The secondary is full of players, but there is little experience coming back and quite a few walk-ons in the mix.
In my humble opinion, things in Champaign are going to get worse on defense before they get better. This unit looks too young and too thin to recover from last year's rough outing, and despite the Big Ten's offensive woes of the past couple years, there are only a handful of offenses moribund enough as to be susceptible to Illinois' defensive abilities.
This will probably be one of the worst units in the conference, and until someone steps up on the line or in the backfield, I can't give the Illinois defense a grade better than a "D".
It could be another long year full of real pain in Champaign.