Laying out the Illinois football secondary heading into the spring game

The defense struggled last season for the Illinois football team, and one of the main culprits was the secondary
Wisconsin v Illinois
Wisconsin v Illinois / Michael Hickey/GettyImages

The Illinois football spring game is two days away, and one of the areas where you will see the most new faces is in the secondary.

There were a lot of offseason changes to the Illini. The roster went through an overhaul, as the entire defensive line departed, multiple playmakers on the offensive side of the ball are now gone, and the Illinois secondary had some major hits.

From the 2023 seconday, the Illini have lost four key players. Nicario Harper and Clayton Bush both graduated and left the program. Taz Nicholson and Zachary Tobe both entered the transfer portal.

Illinois’ secondary has 55.5% of the tackles, 58.8% of the pass deflections, and 85.7% of the interceptions returning from last year’s roster. On top of that, Illinois lost Prince Ford to the transfer portal and Tyson Rooks switched to wide receiver.

What will the Illinois football secondary look like in the spring game and for the 2024 season

It might look bad on paper that Illinois’ secondary has nearly half of the tackles and pass deflections missing from the squad last year, but I would like to shine some light on these numbers.

The Illini secondary struggled in 2023. We gave up 228.1 yards per game through the air, which ranked No. 64 in the country. Illinois’ opponents were also completing 60.4% of their passes, which ranked No. 57 in the nation.

Nicholson’s departure looks bad, as he was highly touted coming into last season, but he finished the 2023 campaign ranked No. 419 among all cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Tobe finished the year at No. 550 in the rankings as well.

Illinois should be okay after Harper and Bush graduated too. They were both fun to watch, but Illinois’ secondary struggled. Harper ranked No. 547 and Bush was No. 479 among all safeties in college football, according to PFF.

I like what the Illini have coming back at safety. Miles Scott led all members of the secondary last season with 63 tackles. He also had three pass deflections and a team-high two interceptions. He graded out as the No. 166 safety in the country.

Illinois also has some nice pieces who are getting healthy. Both Demetrius Hill and Matthew Bailey were supposed to have big 2023 campaigns, but they were both injured and played just one game last season. I look for both of these talented players to be back at the safety position. I also look for Saboor Karriem and Mac Resetich to make some waves.

While I feel comfortable with what we have at safety, the Illini cornerbacks worry me. Tyler Strain and Xavier Scott are two of the main returning cornerbacks. Strain ranked No. 372 and Scott No. 793 in the PFF cornerback rankings.

I think some of the young guys will get a chance to step up in 2024. Elijah Mc-Cantos looked good last season. I am also excited to see the development of Jaheim Clark. Both players could have big years for the Orange and Blue. Kaleb Patterson might make an impact too after redshirting last season.

Chase Canada is someone I am keeping an eye on. Last season in the junior college ranks, Canada had 20 tackles and 10 pass breakups in 10 games. This kid could make an impact in his first year in Champaign.

Overall, Illinois’ secondary could struggle this season. We don’t have a lot of depth, and the quality isn’t quite there. I like our safeties, but the cornerback department is going to rely on some young players to come through. We might have to win some games by scoring 40 or more points in 2024.

Projected Illinois basketball lineup with the transfer portal addition of Carey Booth. Projected Illinois basketball lineup with the transfer portal addition of Carey Booth. dark. Next