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LB Dele Harding during the University of Illinois Spring football game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, April 13, 2019.

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Before the start of Illinois football's training camp on Aug. 2 in Champaign, beat writer SCOTT RICHEY is counting down the Top 50 most important Illini heading into the 2019 season:

No. 21: Dele Harding

Vitals: 6-1, 230, Sr., LB

Hometown: Elkton, Md.

High school: Eastern Christian

Looking back at 2018: Voted the Illini’s special teams captain for the season by his teammates, Harding played in nine games last fall and made two starts at linebacker as he once again missed three games because of an injury. That makes 10 total for his career, as he’s struggled to stay healthy. Harding still finished fourth on the team in tackles for loss in 2018 (five) and wound up with 37 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.

Looking ahead to 2019: Illinois needs Harding to play a bigger role defensively this coming season given the depth concerns at linebacker. The Illini senior anchored the defense at middle linebacker during spring practices following Del’Shawn Phillips exhausting his eligibility. Harding, a former Michigan commit, will need to provide both production and an experienced hand in leading a group crucial to turning around the Illinois defense.

Last year’s ranking: No. 24

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).