Illini preview series: Linebackers
Through seven practices, the linebacker corps has been the top position group on the Illinois squad. Rangy and aggressive, they've been wreaking havoc on the offense and forcing turnovers. Unlike several other positions, there's depth at linebacker heading into the 2017 season. There may not be any Butkus Award candidates, but its a good group.
Tre Watson moves over to middle linebacker after playing on the outside last season. He's the leading returning tackler after getting 102 stops in 12 games a year ago, second only to graduated MLB Hardy Nickerson. Watson is a junior now, and has good command of the system and is playing with a lot of confidence in camp.
The defensive staff loves what they're seeing from sophomore Jake Hansen, who is the starter at the WILL. Hansen saw the field primarily on special teams last season, but he has added strength to go along with really good instincts, vision, and toughness. Hansen may be the best tackler on the team.
At the SAM, we're seeing the light come on for Julian Jones. He had the potential tag placed on him since he was freshmen due to his athleticism and ability to run from sideline to sidelines. Jones can run the ball down in space is quick to the quarterback on zone blitzes. The next step for Jones is doing a bit better job shedding blocks, but he's made strides there as well.
At least two guys off the bench will rotate in, and the defense hasn't missed a beat with the 2's on the field at linebacker. Dele' Harding, a prized recruit in the 2016 class, has had a very good camp as the No. 2 middle linebacker. It took a bit longer for former JUCO transfer Del'Shawn Phillips to catch on. He missed much of the spring with an injury. Phillips has improved throughout camp, and is now the playing the SAM behind Jones. For the first couple of practices he was the No. 3 middle linebacker.
Overall, while the unit probably lacks a superstar, the Illinois linebacker position has depth and athleticism. If the Illinois defense gives up a lot of points again this season, it probably won't be because of poor linebacker play.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson is pulling double duty as the linebackers coach.
Nickerson on what he's seen in camp so far: "Guys are getting better every day. You can see it all across the board. I'm really excited about the whole group. Our numbers are pretty high at the position, but we have some really good competition. The guys are working hard and getting better. "
On Julian Jones: "He's done a great job and has a great camp so far. He's matured as a player since last year and he has the potential to be a difference maker. "
On Jake Hansen: "Jake had a great spring and it's carried over into the summer. He has some great attributes. His movement is as good any body and he's smart and knows what we want to get done."
On Tre Watson: "He's been in the system and played all three linebacker positions. He has a great knowledge of the defense. When you have a guy in the middle of the defense that knows that, it helps a ton."
On the backups: "The competition is there. Del'Shawn Phillips is doing a great job and working hard. Dele' Harding is another MIKE that has done some good things. Especially at MIKE, we have three guys who are good football players."
On forcing turnovers: "We've made that a major emphasis since we got here. Guys have a greater awareness it seems since we've gotten into camp. It's good to see it translate onto the field, and hopefully over to game-day."