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Dick Butkus became a household name at the outset of free-sub football, when the swing toward college's two-platoon system led to a world of specialists.

Butkus occasionally appeared at center in offensive short-down situations, but he was the ultimate linebacker of his era.

And since 1964, when the entire sports world began its swing toward specialists — who plays multiple sports anymore? — The Illini have been blessed at LB.

By fudging a bit, and adding two pre-Butkus greats — Ray Nitschke and Bill Burrell (then listed at their offensive positions, fullback and guard) — Illinois has had 29 linebackers drafted in 60 years. And that doesn't include undrafted 2007 All-American J Leman and two-time All-American Simeon Rice, mysteriously listed as LB but in actuality a sack-minded end.

You'll recall Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy won back-to-back Butkus Awards (1994-95), but you might not remember that their prized teammate, John Holecek, highlighted an eight-year NFL career with 22 tackles for Atlanta in an NFL playoff game ... that Jack Squirek's pick-6 made him a Super Bowl XVIII hero ... that Arcola's Terry Miller played five seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals in the early-70s.

And here's one: Moweaqua's Ron Ferrari, who started just six games for Illinois, was drafted and spent five seasons on the 49ers' roster through 1986.

Legacy

Such is the linebacker legacy at Illinois. Big Ten first-team AP all-stars like Don Hansen, Scott Studwell, Tom Hicks, Martez Wilson and Brit Miller are sometimes overlooked because there were so many.

Taking on the challenge for Illinois this season is Tampa junior Tre Watson, one of 14 Floridians (the latter number could top 20 next season with James Crawford the lone senior and six Florida recruits already on the way). Watson came on strong with 16 tackles in the 31-27 win over Michigan State, and tied for second in conference games with 10.3 tackles per game.

"I played alongside Hardy Nickerson last season," said Watson. "He was calm and in command. I knew my assignments.

"Now I'm moving over to his middle position, and I need to know everyone's assignment. It's my job to make calls and adjustments. I know guys look to the middle linebacker. And I realize what it takes to change the landscape."

That's where his "smarts" come in. Watson earned academic All-Big Ten honors last year.

Defensive leader

Now a chesty 235 pounds, Watson is playing the right position and offering the intellect to serve as the UI's defensive leader. He has paid his dues. He recalls his redshirt season in 2014 as "a time of turmoil" that led to the 2015 preseason firing of coach Tim Beckman.

Watson played sparingly in 2015 behind T.J. Neal and fourth-year starter Mason Monheim, and managed just nine tackles as a sub in the first three games last season before working his way into the lineup.

"I'm ready to take it to the next level," he said. "I moved to this position last spring, and I see things through a different perspective. It's a huge advantage being under Lovie for the second year. He is laid back but he is direct. I know how to get feedback now."

Alongside Watson, it appears another Floridian, Jake Hansen, may have the edge.

"I'd say Jake would be our guy there," said Smith. "Through the spring, no linebacker played better than Jake. And we have (JC transfer) Del'Shawn Phillips and others with experience (Julian Jones, Justice Williams and Dele Harding). I like the competition."

The modern defense

While Smith's defensive alignment is a 4-3, the third linebacker usually steps out when the nickelback enters. Smith explains:

"It's a three-receiver game now, so we'll have a fifth defensive back in the game 65 to 70 percent of the time. You should consider the nickel (where Cam Watkins and Chris James are 1-2) more of a starter than the Sam (outside) linebacker."

So in this latest concession to the modern game, there'll be only two linebackers on the field most of the time. Watson is solid in the middle, and enjoying a leg up at the other slot is Hansen ... same spelling as one of the greatest and most underrated UI linebackers because, well, he was overshadowed for two seasons by the guy next to him, Butkus.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com