The University of Illinois has been known historically as "Linebacker U" for the many outstanding linebackers who have graced Memorial Stadium in the past. Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Bill Burrell, Don Hansen, Scott Studwell, John Sullivan, Dana Howard, Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy are just a few of the great ones. But there has been a drought in recent years.
Unfortunately, there may still not be any superstar linebackers on campus at this time, although a few could still develop. Since the Illini defense depends heavily on linebackers making plays, it is hoped improvements can be made this year to give the defense the strength and consistency needed to stop opponent offenses.
In a constant battle to get more speed on the field, Antonio Steele was recruited out of Long Beach City College and arrived in time for spring practice. The brother of a former pro player, Antonio has modest size but excellent speed for the weakside linebacker position (WILL) and has proceeded to beat out returning junior letterman Anthony Thornhill. Antonio is still learning the system, but his closing speed and sure tackling are a big improvement for the Illini defense. Thornhill has also made improvements and gives Steele plenty of competition in practice. Both will play.
Coaches Ron Zook, defensive coordinator Vince Okruch and linebacker coach Dan Disch have also moved middle linebacker Brit Miller, where he started as a true freshman, to the strongside position (SAM) to take advantage of his speed and savvy. Having replaced some baby fat with hard muscle through a winter, spring and summer with strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez, Brit could be a future star if he continues to improve. But it may still take him some time to learn all the nuances of his new position. And Miller is the one replaced by a defensive back when the defense calls for five backs, although he is the second string middle linebacker in the nickel package.
J. Leman has moved from the SAM position to his more natural middle linebacker (MIKE) spot. J is a fourth year junior with smarts and high energy, and Coach Zook and his assistants like his leadership and play calling at the position. While not the most dominant linebacker, J is better at the MIKE than he showed last year when isolated in space as a SAM.
Backing up the starters, besides Thornhill at WILL, are Sam Carson at MIKE and Rodney Pittman at SAM. The redshirt sophomore Carson is better playing the run than pass and adds a touch of solid tackling to the mix. Pittman is a sophomore with size (6'-2", 235) and quickness who is still learning the position. While he is inconsistent, he has recently begun to make some plays in practice. Rodney will also see time on special teams where his speed can be used advantageously. Walkon Conor Gillen is also competing for time at the MIKE position.
Competing with these players are three promising freshmen. Rahkeem Smith, Anterio Jackson and Dustin Jefferson are all third string at this writing, although Smith has begun to pressure Carson for 2nd team duties at MIKE. Rahkeem is a workout warrior who has excellent strength. All freshmen have much to learn, but his year at prep school last year may give him an advantage now. At the least, don't be surprised to see Smith on some of the special teams.
Anterio Jackson is a sculpted 6'2", 240 pounder who is, plain and simple, a football player. In one-on-one drills, Anterio can be extremely difficult to block, and he had perhaps the most impressive hit at the first Rantoul scrimmage. Some wonder if he will someday grow into a defensive lineman, but at this time he looks like a linebacker to this writer. Arriving out of Chicago Fenger high school, it will likely take Anterio some time to learn technique and relax enough to show his full potential at the SAM. But he ran 200 meters in high school, so he may eventually demonstrate the speed necessary to play the linebacker spot.
Dustin Jefferson is a coach's son who is intelligent and a natural leader. Although not real tall at 6'-0", Dustin appears to have decent quickness and tackling ability for the WILL position. Like the other freshmen, it will be awhile before we know how good he can be. Playing behind two juniors with experience may limit or prevent field time as a freshman.
Linebackers are usually tough nosed and athletic, so they are often needed for special teams work. Most of the upperclassmen and perhaps some of the freshmen will see time on special teams.
Some feel linebacker is our weakest defensive position at this time, and certainly last year's effort left a lot to be desired. While our top backers are not All-Americans, they can show definite improvement for the Illini as long as they remain consistent in carrying out their assignments. With upgrades at the line and secondary positions, the linebackers will find it easier to play their positions.
If they can develop confidence in the preseason, they can help upgrade the Illini defense this year.