Illinois football is going through some changes on the defensive side of the ball.
After the 2022 campaign, the Illini had a big change when then-defensive coordinator Ryan Walters took the head coaching job at Purdue.
This move enabled Bret Bielema to elevate Aaron Henry from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator. Most of the other coaches stayed the same, but Illinois then hired Antonio Fenelus as the new defensive backs coach in 2023.
A year later, Illinois is going through another coaching change. Jeremy Werner of 247Sports reported that Bielema has let go of linebackers coach Andy Buh and defensive backs coach Fenelus.
Illinois football took a step back on defense in 2023
This coaching change is a bit surprising this late in the game, but Illinois did take a step back on defense in 2023.
In 2022, the Illini gave up an average of 184.2 yards per game through the air, which ranked No. 11 in the country. In 2023, that number dropped to 228.1 yards per game, which ranked No. 64 in the nation.
Illinois did lose some big-time secondary talent too. Devon Witherspoon was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Jartavius Martin and Sydney Brown were both selected in that draft as well. I would also throw in Kendall Smith, so that is four starting defensive backs gone.
But even at that, Illinois’ secondary was a massive weak point in the defense. Something needed to change, and that change is coming in the voice in the locker room.
Moving on from Buh as the linebackers coach is logical too. Illinois hasn’t had great linebacker play over the last few years. This has been a weak point in the defense as well. The lack of development is a bit concerning. The highest-rated linebacker for the Illini, according to Pro Football Focus, was Kenenna Odeluga, who ranked as the No. 270 best linebacker in the country.
Defensive backs and linebackers coaching options for the Illinois football team
There are some names out there for both positions on the Illinois football defensive staff. A name that piques my interest is Perry Eliano.
Eliano was the safeties coach for Ohio State the last two seasons, but the Buckeyes didn’t retain him. He has plenty of defensive backs coaching experience, and I like what he has done with recruiting. Eliano is credited with landing some big-time recruits from Ohio and Texas. Ohio State also ranked No. 1 in the country in pass defense in 2023.
For the linebackers coach position, I think Illinois can look toward someone like Bobby McMillen from New Mexico State. He doesn’t have a ton of experience, but over the last three seasons, he has worked in the south, Texas and New Mexico, so that would be a nice recruiting hub. McMillen is also from Naperville, Illinois, and has experience playing linebacker for Iowa State.
There are plenty of options available for Illinois, but these are just two names that come to mind when doing research. I will be interested in seeing what Bielema has in mind for these two hires.