Our series looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team marches on with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Once again, this is not necessarily a listing of the best players on each team, but ones whose absence would be toughest to absorb because of their particular value or a lack of depth behind them.
We're selecting two players from each Big Ten squad, usually one on offense and one on defense, but not always. Let's look at Illinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman.
Graham Pocic, C, Sr.
There's no shortage of question marks for Illinois' offense, but Pocic provides a veteran anchor in the middle of the line. He has started every game the past two seasons at center, and earned honorable mention All-American honors from Phil Steele. While Illinois' offensive line struggled down the stretch in 2011, the group loses left tackle Jeff Allen, a second-round pick in last month's NFL draft, and has some depth issues to address. Pocic is undoubtedly the leader of the group, and will enter 2012 as one of the Big Ten's most seasoned offensive linemen. While Illinois must build some numbers at both wide receiver and running back, the offense won't go anywhere without a decent line. Pocic's presence on the field will be critical this fall.
Terry Hawthorne, CB, Sr.
Illinois' strength as a team is undoubtedly the defensive front seven. Despite the loss of All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus, the Illini defensive line is both talented and deep. While there's not as much depth at linebacker, Jonathan Brown is a budding superstar in the middle. The question marks on defense rest with the secondary. While safety is a prime concern for Illinois, the unit boasts one of the league's top cover cornerbacks in Hawthorne, an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. Hawthorne is a natural playmaker who recorded three interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble last season. The gifted senior even saw time at wide receiver this spring as Illinois tries to build depth there. Hawthorne has next-level potential, and leads a group that loses Tavon Wilson, a surprise second-round pick in last month's NFL draft.