4. The Illini linebackers went MIA
I figured Illinois’ defense would struggle somewhat this season, especially against a good offense like Kansas. But I am extremely disappointed in one unit in particular.
The Illinois linebackers when missing in action on Friday night, and I am still not sure where they are. This was one of the worst linebacker performances I have seen in years. They absolutely killed Illinois when it came to stopping the vaunted Jayhawks running attack.
I think the Illini have decent starting linebackers. Tarique Barnes, Gabe Jacas, and Seth Coleman are all supposed to lock down the middle of the football field. That didn’t happen in the least bit. Linebackers should have the most tackles on the team, and you have to go down to No. 6 on the list of tackles from Friday night to find the first Illinois linebacker.
Coleman finished the Kansas game with five tackles and one tackle for loss. Bryce Barnes had three tackles. Dylan Rosiek, Alec Bryant, Jacas, and Barnes each had two tackles apiece. These are bad numbers for a defense that went up against a running offense.
But it was more than just the stat sheet that got me upset about Illinois’ linebackers. It was the fundamentals that broke down.
Kansas likes to run the run-pass option, and everyone knew this. It is the outside linebacker’s job in a 3-4 defense, or some iteration of that, to keep the quarterback contained. There were so many times that Jalon Daniels would pull the ball out of the running back’s hands and then wait for someone like Coleman to collapse on him only to run right around our linebackers.
Devin Neal would run the ball up the middle at times, and this would be the job of the linebackers to stop him before he got to the third level. There were plenty of times when Jacas would go in to make a tackle only to have his jockstrap left on the field while Neal would break off a 30-yard run.
Illinois’ defensive line played well against Kansas. Our secondary is young and inexperienced, so there will be early struggles. There is no excuse for what I saw out of the Illini linebackers on Friday night, though. This group is my biggest worry right now.