Big Ten Country

Illinois' defense looks to Newton, Randolph's leadership in transition year

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Illinois’ defense took some big hits in the NFL Draft, but a pair of returning upper classmen, Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr., are both back in Champaign and hoping to provide leadership to what was one of the nation’s best groups last season.

The Illini led the nation in allowing just 12.3 points per game last season, and they held opponents to 263.8 yards per game, second-best in the country.

Of course, the price of success in college football is often steep, and the team lost several significant pieces, especially in their secondary. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon was a consensus All-American, and was a top-five draft pick in the NFL. Sydney Brown also departed to the NFL, as did Quan Martin and the team’s leading tackler Isaac Darkangelo.  

Despite the turnover, the Illinois defensive line is still one of the team’s biggest strengths, and both Newton and Randolph are hoping to carry over that success into the 2023 season.

Head coach Bret Bielema, speaking to NBC Sports Chicago’s Big Ten Country podcast, says that both players are being looked to for leadership as well as production.

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“When big people talk, people listen, and Johnny and Keith have been examples of that for us,” he said.

Newton could be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft next season. In 13 games for the Illini, Newton had 61 total tackles, including 14 for loss. He also had 5.5 sacks and defended three passes, serving as one of the conference’s most disruptive linemen.

“Johnny is probably more of a powerful interior player, really uses his size and strength, and his ability to get vertical and disrupt as much as anything,” Bielema said.

According to the NFL Mock Draft Database, Newton has an average draft position of 15th in various mocks, which would give Illinois defensive first-round picks in back-to-back seasons.

Randolph isn’t quite at that level, projecting as a fifth-round pick, but Bielema still loves his skillset.

“Keith has a lot of the same tools (as Newton), but is also a little bit longer, a little bit different of an athlete,” he said. “He is a guy who can bend, twist, get around. We’re going to break some things from him in the passing game more than we did a year ago. We’re really excited to have those two guys.”

Randolph had 53 tackles for Illinois last season, including 13 for loss. He had 4.5 sacks, and an interception.

Both players figure to play prominent roles in what will undoubtedly be the biggest storyline facing Illinois this season, with former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters now the head coach at Purdue.

Defensive backs coach Aaron Henry was tabbed to replace Walters, and Terrance Jamison was promoted to a new role as the co-coordinator for the defense.

That defense will get tested early in the season. Following their opener against Toledo and a road non-conference game against Kansas, Illinois will welcome Penn State to Champaign on July 16 for their conference opener.

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