Assuming the Position: Breaking Down the Fighting Illini Defensive Backs

Illini defensive backs Travon Bellamy (#31), Fritz Rock (#20), Kaeman Mitchell (#29), Justin Green (#26) and others prepare to hit the sleds at Camp Rantoul.

In the seventh edition of its football breakdowns, Writing Illini examines Illinois’ defensive backs.

Despite returning the bulk of its players, the Fighting Illini defensive backs are young and are the weak point of the 2010 defense.

While the defensive line and linebackers should provide more pressure on and less time for opposing quarterbacks to drop back and pass, the Illinois defensive backs will really need to step up in order for the team to avoid finishing last in Big Ten pass defense again.

Arrested Development

Recently-dismissed Illini defensive back Walter Aikens (#15) applies pressure on Anthony Santella (#87) at Camp Rantoul.

In 2009, safety Walter Aikens had a standout freshman year, playing in 10 games and starting 5 at the position.

After making 32 tackles during his freshman season, Aikens was poised to start full-time as a sophomore.

However, Aikens was arrested in April for felony possession of stolen property from a campus dorm room.

Aikens was dismissed from the UI on August 24th. Here’s the story.

The Hits Keep Coming

Camp Rantoul has not been kind to the Illinois secondary. Projected starting safety Supo Sanni tore his Achilles tendon and will be out for the entire 2010 season. Fortunately Sanni is available for a medical redshirt and will not lose the season of eligibility. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne also suffered a debilitating injury. Hawthorne will be out for 4 to 6 weeks with a stress reaction in his foot. With two starters out from an already thin defense, coaches have decided to move Justin Green from running back to cornerback, a position that he played in high school.

The Cornerback Depth Chart

Illini cornerback Tavon Wilson (#3) hits the sleds at Camp Rantoul.

Opening Day Starter: #3 Tavon Wilson

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 205 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 23 games (16 Big Ten), 12 starts

Career Tackles: 85

Career Interceptions: 1

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Opening Day Starter: #1 Terry Hawthorne

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 185 lbs

Illini cornerback Terry Hawthorne (#1) defends redshirt freshman wide receiver Tim Russell (#86) at Camp Rantoul.

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

Career Tackles: 30

Career Interceptions: 1

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Hawthorne has been left in the depth chart because he is projected to be recove from his injury by the Illini’s third game. However, if Hawthorne is unable to return, he is available for a redshirt. Miami Thomas should start in Hawthorne’s absence.

The Backup Plan: #14 Miami Thomas

Year: Redshirt Junior

Height / Weight: 5’11” / 180 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 14 games (8 Big Ten), 1 start

Career Tackles: 20

Career Interceptions: 1

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Illini defensive backs Patrick Nixon-Youman (#4), Miami Thomas (#14), Justin Green (#26) and the recently dismissed Walter Aikens (#15) stand around at Camp Rantoul.

The Backup Plan: #4 Patrick Nixon-Youman

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-10” / 175 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 9 games (7 Big Ten), 0 starts

Career Tackles: 1

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Third Stringer: #27 Antonio Gully

Year: Redshirt Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-1” / 190 lbs

Cornerback Antonio Gully (#27) defends wide receiver Eddie McGee (#10) at Camp Rantoul.

Collegiate Game Experience: 29 games (19 Big Ten), 0 starts

Career Tackles: 8

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Third Stringer: #26 Justin Green

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 195 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 12 games (8 Big Ten), 0 starts (all on offense)

Career Tackles: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Trulon Henry is late to a pass at Camp Rantoul.

Green was moved from the offensive side of the ball to defense due to the rash of injuries the Illini experienced during camp.

While he played cornerback in high school, Green spent most of his college career at the running back position.

Green was moved to the defense during Camp Rantoul and will play at cornerback all year.

He may move up the depth chart as the year progresses, but due to the lateness of his move, it will likely take some time for him to see the field.

The Safety Depth Chart

Recently injured Illini safety Supo Sanni (#7) and fellow cornerback Travon Bellamy (#31) watch drills at Camp Rantoul.Opening Day Starter:

Opening Day Starter: #9 Trulon Henry

Year: Junior Transfer

Height / Weight: 6’-2” / 225 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Career Tackles: 0

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Opening Day Starter: #6 Joelil Thrash

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 200 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 12 games (8 Big Ten), 0 starts

Career Tackles: 1

Career Interceptions: 0

Sophomore defensive back Joelil Thrash (#6) reacts at Camp Rantoul.

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Backup Plan: #31 Travon Bellamy

Year: Redshirt Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 205 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 35 games (24 Big Ten), 11 starts

Career Tackles: 91

Career Interceptions: 2

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Travon Bellamy (#31) ponders the meaning of life at Camp Rantoul.

The Backup Plan: #29 Kaemen Mitchell

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-9” / 180 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Career Tackles: 0

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

The Third Stringer: #26 Tisunge Mkwezalamba

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 190 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Defensive backs Tisgunge Mkwezalamba (#26), Fritz Rock (#20) and Nick Forzley (#22) gather before hitting the sleds at Camp Rantoul.

Career Tackles: 0

Career Interceptions: 0

Career Fumbles Forced: 0

Now-and-Then

The following Illini players are defensive backs 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.

→ #20 Fritz Rock*

#22 Nick Forzley*

#23 Ben Mathis*

#24 Earnest Thomas*

#32 Ean Days*

Some Thoughts on the Illini Defensive Backs

Illini defensive backs Supo Sanni (#7), Ean Days (#32), Tavon Wilson (#3) and Terry Hawthorne (#1) participate in drills at Camp Rantoul.

In 2009, the Illinois defensive backfield was tied for last in the nation in turnovers.

While it would be hard for the secondary not to improve, it will still take a while for everyone to fully grasp the new defensive formations.

The good news for the defensive backs is that the addition of the new Bandit position will not affect them like it will the defensive line and linebackers.

Writing Illini Projections

With Ohio State the only one of Illinois’ first 5 opponents to have a truly experienced quarterback, the secondary will have a slight grace period to get comfortable with the defense.

Expect improved numbers across the board for the secondary, especially in the turnovers column.

While there should be noticeable improvements, it is still a safe bet that the secondary will give up its share of big plays. The key is for Illinois to keep those to a minimum and avoid giving up momentum-changing plays.

Preseason Defensive Backs’ Grade: C-

The loss of Aikens and Sanni really hurts an already struggling defensive backfield.

With that in mind, the rest of the defense will really have to bring the pressure to ensure that other teams don’t have the time to air out the ball and pick apart the defensive backs.

Topics: Antonio Gully, Ben Mathis, Ean Days, Earnest Thomas, Football, Fritz Rock, Illini Football, Illinois Fighting Illini Football, Illinois Football, Joelil Thrash, Kaemen Mitchell, Miami Thomas, Nick Forzley, Patrick Nixon-Youman, Supo Sanni, Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne, Tisunge Mkwezalamba, Travon Bellamy, Trulon Henry, Walter Aikens

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