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Big shoes to fill: Illinois

2/15/2012

As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next is Illinois, which loses an extremely productive player on both sides of the ball.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Whitney Mercilus, DE

Why: Mercilus was the Big Ten's top defensive end and one of the nation's best in 2011. He led the nation in both sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9), breaking the Big Ten record for forced fumbles and ranking second in NCAA history in the category. Mercilus finished second nationally in tackles for loss with 22.5, which led the Big Ten and ranked third in Illinois history. He was one of only seven unanimous consensus All-Americans in 2011 and received the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end. The Bronko Nagurski trophy finalist recorded sacks in 11 of 13 games and had multiple tackles for loss in eight contests. Mercilus recorded forced fumbles in six of Illinois' eight Big Ten contests.

Replacement candidates: Tim Kynard (6-3, 260, Jr.); D.J. Woods (6-3, 255, So.); Michael Buchanan (6-6, 240, Sr.); Justin Staples (6-4, 235, Sr.)

The skinny: Buchanan and Staples played the "bandit" role in Vic Koenning's defense, and while both could start under the new regime, the coaches might want a bigger pass rusher to replace Mercilus. Kynard backed up Mercilus in 2011 and recorded three tackles for loss and a sack in 12 games. Woods appeared in only one game. There should be plenty of competition this spring for Mercilus' spot as Illinois looks pretty strong along the rest of the defensive line with Buchanan, NFL prospect Akeem Spence at defensive tackle and D-tackle Glenn Foster all returning. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks will be looking out for pass rushers as his Cincinnati defense ranked second nationally in sacks in 2011 (45).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: A.J. Jenkins, WR

Why: Jenkins was one of the nation's top receivers through the first half of the season and proved to be one of few offensive weapons the Illini had in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award after recording a league-high 90 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. Jenkins ranked 16th nationally in receptions per game (6.9) and 14th nationally in receiving yards per game (98.2 ypg). He accounted for 39.8 percent of Illinois' receptions, 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards and 57.1 percent of the team's receiving touchdowns.

Replacement candidates: Spencer Harris (6-3, 195, Jr.); Darius Millines (5-11, 185, Jr.); Ryan Lankford (6-0, 175, Jr.); Jake Kumerow (6-4, 190, So.)

The skinny: Illinois struggled to find pass-catching options to complement Jenkins in 2011. Although Harris had 26 catches and freshman tight end Jon Davis had 22, the Illini need much more from this group in 2012. The spotlight should be on Millines, who the coaches thought would be a difference-maker last season but missed time with a foot injury and never broke through. Millines had a very strong performance in preseason camp and should be ready for a bigger role. It's also time for Lankford to take another step in his development. Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales will work with the receivers this spring after developing some solid wideouts at LSU and Florida.