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Illinois Football Season Preview Pt. 6: The Secondary



Illinois Football Season Preview Pt. 6
Jan 2, 2023; Tampa, FL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Tyler Strain (20) breaks up a pass intended for Mississippi State Bulldogs wide receiver Lideatrick Griffin (5) during the second half in the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports


Illinois Football Season Preview Pt. 6: The Secondary

This is the final installment of the Illinois Football season preview. We’re previewing the secondary.

Anytime you lose four players to the NFL- three taken within the first 100 picks- there should be some drop-off, especially if those four players are from the same position group. Illinois football lost four members of its secondary to the NFL. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon was the fifth overall pick by the Seattle Seahawks. Jartavious Martin and Sydney Brown went in the second and third rounds, respectively. The Washington Commanders signed Kendall Smith as an Undrafted Free Agent.

However, there might not be as much of a step back from the secondary as one might think. Bret Bielema and the defensive staff did an outstanding job recruiting and developing in the backfield. The Illini led the nation with 24 interceptions last season. Can they do that again? The odds are they can’t. The secondary can still be effective, despite losing that much talent. They are playing with one of the best fronts in college football this fall.

The best of the returning talent.

Many young players got snaps and saw meaningful action despite the talent in the secondary room. There’s a saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” Cornerback Tyler Strain exemplifies this saying. Strain isn’t the biggest, standing 5-foot-9, but he competes and is more effective with the ball in the air than you might think. Tahveon Nicholson could be the next high-draft pick the Illini produced.

At safety, new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry and defensive backs coach Antonio Fenelus love sophomore Matthew Bailey. A local product from Moline, Bailey is a long athlete who can play down in the box, cover deep, and cover tight ends and running backs.

The Illini also hit the transfer market hard.

Illinois did a tremendous job of adding talent and depth to its secondary. Today’s game requires defensive backs to play hybrid roles on the field. Teams that play an up-tempo make it hard to substitute players on and off the field. You need defensive backs that can cover and come down and plays some linebacker concepts. The transfers the Illini brought in can do just that.

FIU transfer Demetrius Hill and Louisville transfer Nicario Harper will compete for the starting safety position alongside Matthew Bailey. Hill is an outstanding athlete who might move to cornerback and move Tyler Strain to cover the slot. That would get him and Harper on the field at the same time.

In addition to the law firm of Harper and Hill, the Illini added another safety, Southern Illinois transfer Clayton Bush and another corner, Prince Ford. Both players add quality depth and youth to a deep secondary room.

But they should still regress, right?

The short answer is yes. It is impossible to lose that much talent and not take at least a small step back. The secondary does have two things working in their favor. First, teams will struggle to find time to throw against Illinois’ front seven. Pressure is coming from everywhere. Second, the schedule. Illinois doesn’t play Marvin Harrison, Jr. and the Buckeyes or J.J. McCarthy and the Wolverines.

Penn State, Kansas, and Maryland might be the only three passing offenses potent enough to expose an inexperienced secondary with new players. Purdue is breaking in a new quarterback and receivers; the same could be said of Nebraska and Wisconsin.



Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.