The Illinois linebackers attack the garbage cans/line of scrimmage at Camp Rantoul.

Assuming the Position: Breaking Down the Illinois Fighting Illini Linebackers

The Illini linebackers convene during a drill at Camp Rantoul.

The sixth installment of Writing Illini’s position breakdowns examines the Illinois linebacking corps.

The linebackers are traditionally the leaders of a defense, with the middle linebacker often serving as a play caller on this side of the ball.

In 2010, the Illinois linebackers bring the experience and desire necessary to lead the defense under its new formations and help bring the Illini out of the bottom of the Big Ten.

Wilson’s Return

Linebacker Martez Wilson (#2) is back in action at Camp Rantoul after suffering a herniated disk last season.

The absence of a clear leader was one of the biggest problems with last year’s defense.

Two years ago, Brit Miller led the defense from the middle linebacker position, and J Leman did the same in route to the Rose Bowl the season before that.

In 2009, junior Martez Wilson was poised to take over as the new defensive leader on the field, but he suffered a herniated disk in his neck during the season opener against Missouri, causing him to redshirt the rest of the year.

Without Wilson, the inexperience of the young Illini defense showed.

Illinois was last in the Big Ten in total defense and allowed an average of 403 yards per game.

This year, Wilson is back at the middle linebacker position and ready to live up to the 5-star rating that he was given as a high school recruit.

With an experienced Wilson calling plays and a more veteran defense around him, Illinois should be more productive defensively in 2010 versus 2009.

The Middle Linebacker Position

Opening Day Starter: #2 Martez Wilson

Year: Redshirt Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-4” / 250 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 25 games (15 Big Ten), 25 starts

Illini junior linebacker Martez Wilson (#2) is backed up by sophomore Evan Frierson (#51) at Camp Rantoul and on the Illini depth chart.

Career Tackles: 111

Career Sacks: 5

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 1

The Backup Plan: #51 Evan Frierson

Year: Redshirt Sophomore

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 230 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 12 games (8 Big Ten), 5 starts

Career Tackles: 19

Career Sacks: 0

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Third Stringer: #25 Ashante Williams

Illini cornerback Tavon Wilson (#3) and linebackers Justin Staples (#54), Martez Wilson (#2) and Ian Thomas (#38) gather at Camp Rantoul with head coach Ron Zook in the background.

Year: Redshirt Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-10” / 205 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 8 games (6 Big Ten), 1 start

Career Tackles: 9

Career Sacks: 0

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Outside Linebacker Position

Opening Day Starter: #38 Ian Thomas

Year: Redshirt Junior

Illini linebacker Nate Bussey (#18) stands around at Camp Rantoul.

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 240 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 21 games (14 Big Ten), 12 starts

Career Tackles: 99

Career Sacks: 1

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Opening Day Starter: #33 Russell Ellington

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 235 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 24 games (16 Big Ten), 5 starts

Career Tackles: 50

Career Sacks: 0

Career Interceptions: 1

Career Fumbles Forced: 1

The Backup Plan: #18 Nate Bussey

Year: Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 220 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 37 games (24 Big Ten), 10 starts

Career Tackles: 74

Illini linebacker Aaron Gress (#42) is surrounded by various teammates at Camp Rantoul.

Career Sacks: 1

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 1

The Backup Plan: #42 Aaron Gress

Year: Transfer Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 220 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 12 games (8 Big Ten), 1 start

Career Tackles: 22

Career Sacks: 0

Illini defensive lineman Austin Teitsma (#44) and linebackers Beau Sullivan (#40) and Houston Bates (#30) practice at Camp Rantoul.

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Third Stringer: #40 Beau Sullivan

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 200 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Career Tackles: 0

Career Sacks: 0

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Now-and-Then

Illini linebackers Justin Staples (#54) and Brandon Denmark (#8) get some refreshments at Camp Rantoul.

The following Illini players are linebackers who are active members of the team, but are not expected to see action on the field this year. An asterisks by the player’s name denotes that they are available to redshirt the season should the coaches choose for them to do so.

→ #8 Brandon Denmark*

→ #30 Houston Bates*

→ #34 Alex Porter*

→ #45 Jonathan Brown*

#54 Dustin Jefferson

#54 Justin Staples

Some Thoughts on the Illini Linebackers

With Wilson healthy and ready to lead, one would assume that this season’s defense will fare better than last season’s.

While the new Bandit position that was discussed in the defensive line breakdown will most likely mean that the linebackers play more pass protection, they should still get their fare share of blitzing opportunities

Writing Illini Projections

Martez Wilson will explode out of the gates at Missouri and never look back.

Members of the Illini linebackers and defensive line gather at Camp Rantoul.

The rest of the defense follows his lead and makes things uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.

With the Bandit position in place, the linebackers are free to help a young secondary and keep opponents from airing the ball out. Don’t expect to see any opponents hanging the 40-50 points that teams put up against Illinois last season.

The tougher defense will help keep Illinois in games when the young offense struggles.

Preseason Linebackers Grade: B+

This year’s linebackers look very solid.

The only thing keeping this grade from an A is the question of whether Wilson can perform at the level he was predicted to before his injury.

While all reports are that Wilson has recovered, his impact will not be fully known until he takes the field on September 4th against Missouri.

Tags: Aaron Gress Alex Porter Ashante Williams Beau Sulivan Brandon Denmark Evan Frierson Football Houston Bates Ian Thomas Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illinois Football Jonathan Brown Martez Wilson Nate Bussey Russell Ellington

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