Illinois Football 2021: Linebackers Sneak Peek

Linebackers serve as the jack-of-all-trades of any defense, invited to support the secondary in cover and the defensive line to stop the run / pass, while also imposing a level of physique so that opposing attacks fear attacking the midfield. of the field. In general, it is difficult for a team to win without hard-hitting players in this position.

Lucky for us, we have a few well-regarded seniors who return to Jake Hansen and Owen Carney Jr. to headline our linebacking corps.

Let’s see who will join them in the middle of our defense this season.

What has changed since last season?


As noted in our overview of the defensive line, Bret Bielema changes our defense to a 3-4 defensive pattern. One of the benefits of a 3-4 scheme is the flexibility it gives defensive coordinators, having more pieces in midfield and allowing them to better disguise blitzes and design dynamic cover schemes. The outside linebackers will be expected to be the main source of the pass rush, and the inside linebackers will be responsible for attacking in support of the run and covering midfield.

Key loss

Milo Eifler the decision to leave for the NFL (taken over by the New York Jets) left big shoes to fill in the middle of the defense. Eifler has started all but two games since transferring to Illinois as a University of Washington junior. His experience, relentless drive and mind-blowing successes such as these will be missed:


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Jake Hansen, ILB (Sr.)

Hansen is one of the best linebackers in the country, and his decision to return to the Illini was an unexpected bonus for Bielema. Hansen has started every game he’s adapted to since the 2018 season and was named to the All-Big Ten second team last season.

His style is unique in that he has a penchant for creating turnovers while playing fundamentally healthy football. Hansen has caused the most turnovers in the NCAA since 2019, while maintaining a top-5 rating in tackling.

Hansen has a chance to further improve his ranking among Illini’s greats this season. With 4 more forced fumbles he will overtake Simeon Rice for the most in Illinois history, and if he again leads the Illini in tackles he will be the second Illini to lead the team in tackles over the course of three different seasons. He was also named to several All-Big Ten and All-American preseason teams prior to this season.

Calvin Hart Jr., ILB (Jr.)

Hart is the only new face among the starters, joining the Illini as a transfer from NC State. He was wedged behind All-ACC first-team linebacker Payton Wilson on the depth board at NC State, but showed his promising talent whenever he had playing time. Playing alongside Hansen should allow him to play. ” assume their responsibilities as a starter.

Isaiah Gay, OLB (Sr.)

Since joining the Illini in 2017, Gay has been part of the passing race rotation, playing every game and even getting starts when needed. He will go from a 4-3 ED to a 3-4 OLB this season, so he will need to add cover responsibilities on top of his traditional role of rush rush.

Owen Carney Jr., OLB (Sr.)

Carney is another Super Senior who will move from DE to OLB, but her experience should help her transition. He saw his playing time increase during the 2018-19 seasons and finally made his entry into the starting lineup in 2020.

He caught the nation’s attention with his 3-sack performance against rival Purdue last year and was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team. As a result, he enters this season with high expectations having been named to the preseason All-Big Ten squad.


Coming out of the bench, we will have Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson who both have initial experience with a former 4-star recruit Shammond Cooper.

Shifting to a 3-4 pattern inherently requires more linebackers, so we’ll likely need a few rounds of recruiting to gain greater depth in the position.

The change in scheme will bring a lot more to the linebacker body as they take primary responsibility for the game, but with Hansen and Carney leading the group, everything should be okay.

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