When taking a look at what's gone and what's left in the Illini secondary, it's clear that more than one person has to step up.
That leaves… Earnest Thomas and somebody else.
As far as the Earnest Thomas part of that last sentence, I feel pretty settled about it. He already let us know he can handle it.
He finished fourth on the team with 69 tackles as a sophomore in 2012, and also had a team-high three forced fumbles, a quarterback sack and an interception.
As far as the somebody else part at safety, my educated guess tells me junior college transfer Zane Petty will join Thomas in the starting lineup. But he's never played in the Big Ten before. And the others at the position, notably Taylor Barton and Ben Mathis, are solid players, but not guys that are going to move the needle.
That's why Thomas is so important. Illinois can't afford to have even the sophomore version of him in 2013 -- they need him to be even better. A closer look at last year's statistics tells a story -- Thomas played his best ball at the end of the year. He had at least eight tackles in four of Illinois' last five games. He kept getting better as the year went on.
That progression was stalled this spring when a groin injury limited him for much of the work the team put in. I watched most of the team's practices, and no offense to anybody else, but without Earnest out there, I was less than impressed with what was going on in the secondary. Petty was injured too, so that gave me a glimpse into what life would be like without the two headliners at the position.
Let's just say, Thomas needs to have a big year.