Illini football hopes new arrivals bring the heat
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois lacked a consistent pass rush last season.
Recording 15 sacks speaks to the truth of that.
Of the 15 sacks — one fewer than what Whitney Mercilus had in 2011 and what Simeon Rice finished with in 1994 — only 81/2 came from the defensive line.
Almost three-fourths of that woeful production has departed. Houston Bates (31/2 sacks) transferred to Louisiana Tech this offseason, and Tim Kynard (21/2 sacks) graduated.
Junior college transfers Jihad Ward and Carroll Phillips, two recent arrivals on Illinois’ campus, could factor into possibly increasing those numbers this fall.
Coach Tim Beckman didn’t promise them immediate playing time during their recruitment.
“Nobody can guarantee anybody to be a starter,” Beckman said. “If they do, that’s a lie. You’ve got to earn that right. They’ve both been very good, not just as athletes but as leaders so far. They look the part, and they work the part.”
Ward and Phillips fit the bill of what defensive linemen in the Big Ten should look like. Where Illinois lines up Phillips, though, will work itself out once fall practices start the first week in August. Beckman likes the versatility the Miami native brings and could see him at either LEO or linebacker. With Bates gone, Dawuane Smoot appears to have the inside track for the starting LEO position after a solid spring, but Phillips could factor into that race.
“He’s big, and he can run,” Beckman said of the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Phillips. “He’s a guy that, to me, we’ve got to find what need we have most. He can rush the passer. He can drop into coverage. We thought he could definitely fit the piece of being a LEO or a linebacker for us. He puts a little bit of speed on the field.”
Much was made last year of the effects five junior college transfers, including three on defense, could have for the Illini. Only one, however, turned into a player who started more than half the games.
Zane Petty enters his second season with the Illini the likely starter at free safety after he finished last season with 75 tackles, fourth on the team.
While Beckman won’t get confused with Mike White — who had 19 junior college players on his roster during his second season at Illinois in 1981 — the Illini will have 12 junior college players on their roster this season. It’s the most of any Big Ten roster, and all have come on board with Beckman’s last two recruiting classes.
“When I was (defensive coordinator) at Oklahoma State, that was a must for us to do defensively,” Beckman said. “When we got here, knowing the academic (standards), we wanted to make sure it was OK because they hadn’t recruited junior colleges very much (recently). You have to understand (some) have two years to build their resume. The people that recruit junior colleges is for need right away.”