Bob Asmussen | Illinois defense counting on linebackers to plug the gaps

College Football Reporter/Columnist
CHAMPAIGN — A new linebacker coach is in place at Illinois, and Archie McDaniel said he won’t judge the players based on old film.
They are all getting a fresh start in the spring. A chance to impress and earn their way into the rotation.
McDaniel won’t be alone in working with the Illini linebackers. Bret Bielema’s program has a job available to coach outside linebackers after Charlie Bullen left for the NFL and a spot on the New York Giants staff.
The losses of key starters on the defensive line, especially Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph Jr., figures to hand more responsibility to the guys in the middle of the defense.
Traditionally, linebacker has been a highlighted position at Illinois. Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy won the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker and is named for the late legend and former Illini great Dick Butkus.
McDaniel appreciates the linebacker lore at Illinois and wants to help add to it.
Plenty of talent appears to be on hand, but it is up to McDaniel and the pending new hire to figure out how to put the right pieces in place.
So how is it going to work? Here are my thoughts:
Projected starters: Seth Coleman, Gabe Jacas, James Kreutz and Dylan Rosiek. Coleman decided to return rather than jump into the NFL draft, providing a boost for Aaron Henry’s defense. Coleman is the team’s returning leader in sacks with six. It will be his sixth season at Illinois, making him a rarity in the transfer portal era.
Jacas had a strong rookie season in 2022 with four sacks, then duplicated the number in 2023. But there is speculation that the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Jacas is a candidate to move to one of the vacated defensive tackle positions. If that happens, you won’t likely find out about it until the games start in late August.
Kreutz impressed in his first full season on the field, recording 18 tackles and earning a start against Nebraska.
Rosiek, a Florida native, is another Bielema find. Lightly recruited by Power Five school, he was likely headed to the Ivy League or service academies. Good thing for Bielema he decided to play in the Big Ten. He led the team in tackles with 82 last season, forced four fumbles and is only getting started.
Backups: Kenenna Odeluga, Alec Bryant, Jared Badie and Daniel Brown. The big question is the health of Odeluga, who suffered a leg injury late in the season. If he is cleared to play, the school’s latest standout from Chicago Mount Carmel will be a force.
Bryant has been a steady contributor since transferring from Virginia Tech. He started against Wisconsin in 2023. Brown is a transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where he had 18 sacks in 2023. He had Big Ten offers from Minnesota and Purdue.
Final analysis: Time for the most famous position at the school (sorry, Red Grange) to step up. There is no way the team can count on the line again with the departures of the two star tackles. The experience of the linebackers in 2023 gives the defense hope.
But they all have to play better. Coleman needs more sacks, Rosiek more tackles and Jacas more overall production.
Those three are older (in Coleman’s case much older), so it isn’t unreasonable to expect a bump in their play.
Want to fire the guys up? Bring in Howard and Hardy for a pep talk. J Leman, John Holecek and Martez Wilson, too.
The list of game-changing linebackers at Illinois is a deep one.
No question linebacker is the position on defense with the greatest potential for growth. The players will have new voices in their ears this upcoming season, and a different take could turn into a good thing.
McDaniel was impressive in his initial meeting with the media this week. My guess is he will be even better with the players.
He was in their shoes and started three years at Texas A&M in the mid-2000s. His guys should listen, especially because the linebackers should play such an important role for the Illini in 2024.

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