As spring practice heats up across the Big Ten, depth charts are starting to take shape and jobs are being claimed for the fall. Spots can still be earned during training camp in August, but March and April provide a prime opportunity to make a move and potentially solidify areas of uncertainty on the roster. Across the league, we’re looking at which position battles could be the most critical during the 15 spring practices, starting with the Illinois Fighting Illini.
1. Linebacker: New coach Lovie Smith certainly brings a defensive pedigree to the program, and he clearly has plenty of work to do with a unit that must replace six starters and is particularly thin at the second level. The loss of Mason Monheim to graduation and T.J. Neal’s decision to transfer won’t be easy to overcome, especially with just six linebackers listed on the roster this spring. Sophomore Julian Jones figures to be in the spotlight and could emerge as a key contributor, and Mike Svetina is an intriguing option as well after battling injuries the past two seasons following an 11-start campaign in 2013.
2. Cornerback: The Illini need new cover guys on both sides of the field thanks to the departures of Eaton Spence and V’Angelo Bentley, but the revamped secondary isn’t short on options. Darius Mosely is a veteran who has 67 career tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries and could potentially step into a more prominent role. Illinois also has another Glenville (Cleveland, Ohio) product in the pipeline in Frank Sumpter, who followed in Bentley’s footsteps in high school and could do the same this fall.
3. Guard: The Illini struggled to open up rushing lanes and protect the quarterback last season, and taking a big step forward will require finding at least two new starters at the guard spots -- including replacing perhaps the offensive line's most productive player, Ted Karras. Illinois has veterans back at tackle and center, which is a nice head start. But the focus will likely be on former four-star recruit Gabe Megginson, seeing if he’s ready to slide into the lineup and start tapping into his potential after a redshirt season.