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B1G shoes to fill: Illinois

3/30/2015

As part of a new series this week, we're looking into each Big Ten team and how it's overcoming key departures.

Up first: Illinois

The Illini return most of their starting roster, but there are still a few areas of concern. Wes Lunt no longer has an experienced backup quarterback, safety Zane Petty has graduated, and All-B1G punter Justin DuVernois is gone.

But there are other big shoes here that should prove more difficult to fill ...

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Earnest Thomas III, S/LB

Why: Over the last four years, Thomas played in 48 of a possible 50 games and started for three seasons. That experience is not easily replaced. He was also the STAR (literally) of the defense and, although he never received an All-B1G honor, he was always a solid contributor for the Illini. This past season, he posted 60 tackles and a team-high 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles-for-loss.

Replacement candidates: James Crawford (6-2, 215, Soph.), Eric Finney (6-0, 220, Sr.), Nelson Lugo (5-11, 200, Jr.,), Conner Schmidt (5-11, 195, Soph.)

The skinny: The starting spot is really between Crawford and Finney here. Finney boasts more experience as a senior and currently has the edge, but the younger Crawford still has a lot of upside. Crawford is a redshirt sophomore, a nephew of Heisman winner Charles Woodson and -- at the very least -- could see significant time behind Finney, not unlike Finney's role behind Thomas in 2014.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Donovonn Young, RB

Why: You couldn't be blamed for choosing left tackle instead, especially with fellow running back Josh Ferguson returning, but the Illini still need to find a replacement power back. Young knew the offense, especially since he played in 49 out of a possible 50 games during his career, and it should be tricky finding his replacement. Maybe he didn't have the type of career some expected, but he was still valuable in short-yardage situations and finished with six touchdowns in 2014, compared to Ferguson's eight scores. (Ferguson had 52 more carries.)

Replacement candidates: Henry Enyenihi (5-11, 210, Jr.), Kendrick Foster (5-9, 200, Soph.), Dre Brown (5-11, 200, Fr.)

The skinny: Enyenihi, a juco transfer who enrolled in January, is currently playing with the second-team, but there's still no telling where this position battle might end up. Two more freshmen are set to enroll over the summer, and Foster and Brown also still have a chance to make up some lost ground. None of them are quite as big as Young and his 220-pound frame, but Enyenihi is the closest.