Position that needs improvement: Illinois


Every Big Ten team is looking to improve in the coming months. This week, we're examining one position group for each squad that must be upgraded. The Illinois Fighting Illini are up next.

Problem position: Defensive line

Why defensive line was a problem in 2014: The front actually has been a problem throughout coach Tim Beckman's tenure after Illinois produced a nice run of NFL prospects from the defensive line. Illinois finished last in the Big Ten in run defense for the second consecutive season, allowing 239.2 rush yards per game (115th nationally). The Illini also finished near the bottom in the league in sacks (23) and tackles for loss (82). The poor performance cost line coach Greg Colby his job following Illinois' bowl loss to Louisiana Tech.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Illinois has loaded up on junior-college transfers and needs several to blossom this season along the defensive line. Jihad Ward is the one to watch after recording three sacks, two forced fumbles and a team-high four fumbles recovered in his first year as an Illini end. Illinois also needs more from Joe Fotu on the inside. Illinois fans are waiting for big things from Paul James III, a decorated high school prospect. Rob Bain, who started about half of last season at tackle, is back alongside Dawuane Smoot, who had 7.5 tackles for loss as a reserve in 2014.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): A major problem could get worse if Illinois can't finish strong in recruiting. The Illini finally landed their first defensive line recruit of the 2015 class this past weekend when junior college defensive end Sean Adesanya committed to the school. There's some talent on the current roster, but Illinois really could use another lineman or two in this class.

Early 2015 outlook: Beckman's first step is finding an assistant to coach the line after missing out on Missouri's Craig Kuligowski, who would have been excellent. Whomever Illinois hires must get more out of the talent in the program, starting with Ward, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound potential matchup nightmare for opponents, but also others like James and Smoot. Run defense must be Illinois' single biggest priority heading into another make-or-break season for Beckman.