Listen to this article

Lovie Smith's late additions — Keith Randolph, Shammond Cooper, Jeff Thomas (oops, is he re-reverting?), Luke Ford and A.D. Miller — have upgraded the Illinois football roster and changed the school's recruiting grade.

A breath of fresh air.

But let's get one thing straight. The husky fellows who resided on the UI campus while Penn State, Maryland and Iowa accumulated 63 points each, while Nebraska racked 55 and Purdue another 46 ... well, these are the same guys who'll be charged with handling the defensive assignments in 2019.

In college football, defense is where it's at.

Sure, we'll fuss for days whether newcomer Isaiah Williams can challenge M.J. Rivers II at quarterback, whether former regular Larry Boyd can return in Nick Allegretti's slot at right guard, whether Reggie Corbin can run for 1,000 yards again and whether the NCAA will approve waivers for Ford and Thomas to join Ricky Smalling in the receiving corps.

But success or failure this season will hinge on how the defensive line handles the running game, and how an unsettled secondary rejects passes.

Good news, bad news

This isn't 2017, when Illinois was the nation's youngest team. The football program has progressed to a point where it's not dependent on the flashy young guys on a recruiting list. No more banking on 18-year-olds in the learning stage.

Even with a slim senior class, Illinois will field one of the most experienced teams in the country.

In particular, the real questions are: Can Smith make some sense out of the defensive backfield with the one rookie most likely to play, fleet Texan Marquez Beason, joining a large group of at least 10 — yes, 10 — former starters in the secondary. Cohesion is as important there as in the offensive line, so it's essential that Smith establish a tight unit and go with it.

Defensively, it's a good news-bad news situation. The good news is that freshmen will find it hard to crack the lineup anywhere. The bad news is that the defenders are the same ones who permitted a school record 6,100 yards and all those points.

Can an awful defense become at least competitive? Is there enough spinach around for them to swell those muscles this winter, and can they ultimately stay healthy? Can a weakness become a strength?

Run defense top priority

As in all these forecasts, you'll find me rummaging around the defensive line. Memorial Stadium will be another scantily attended wasteland if the Illini don't become dramatically more physical in the trenches. Stopping the run is first priority. First above everything!

While the long-term status at tackle is shaky — so far, no recruits at this position — Smith has six former starters poised for spring practice. That's three deep. They're big enough and experienced enough, and they'll have a new opportunity to show whether they're good enough.

Senior tackles who fill out their uniforms are Jamal Milan, Kenyon Jackson and Tymir Oliver. Much has been expected of them but, for one reason or another, little received. They'll be challenged. Lere Oladipo is expected to return from suspension. Jamal Woods is back, having started the first four games before redshirting (injury). And much is expected from upcoming sophomore Calvin Avery (he weighed 330 last season) and redshirted Verdis Brown.

Wait till 2020?

There are no more excuses for Illinois to be ransacked up the middle. End performance is less certain.

Only Bobby Roundtree, an upcoming junior, has truly proved himself at defensive end with 11 1 / 2 sacks in his first two seasons. Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney shared the other slot in 2018. If they don't improve, or if depth is needed, Woods and/or Oladipo can return there.

At linebacker, top tackler Del'Shawn Phillips was one of the few senior graduates. Senior Dele Harding should step in alongside junior Jake Hansen, with Washington transfer Milo Eifler and promising sophomore Khalan Tolson the likely challengers.

Now comes the news you don't want to hear. With so many non-seniors starting again this season, Illinois will almost certainly be better in 2020 ... but nobody around here wants to wait that long.

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