The start of the 2019 college football season is still several months away but Illinois is already looking at the likelihood it will be without starting defensive end Bobby Roundtree. The rising junior recently suffered an unspecified spinal injury during a swimming accident near his home in Largo, Florida.
Prior to the injury, Roundtree was expected to serve a big role on the Fighting Illini's defense. In 24 career games (20 starts), Roundtree has totaled 116 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. He was named to Athlon Sports' All-Big Ten third team.
While the primary concern for Roundtree is that he is able to make a full recovery, his absence leaves a huge void both on the field and within the program as a whole. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith is now tasked with figuring out how to fill Roundtree's big shoes along the defensive line. With that in mind, here are five players that could play a bigger role on defense for the Illini this season.
Tymir Oliver, DT
Heading into his senior year, Oliver has worked his way up the depth chart during his time in Champaign. In 36 career games (22 starts), Oliver has registered 63 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, four sacks, and six pass breakups. At 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, Oliver has the ideal size to take on the larger interior offensive linemen from schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan State.
Isaiah Gay, DE
Even though he's a bit undersized (6-3, 230) for the position, Gay has shown a knack for making things happen when he's on the field. In his first two seasons, Gay has played in 21 games (five starts), collecting 40 tackles, five tackles for a loss, and two sacks in the process. He also has been credited with a blocked kick. He's in line for even more playing time this season and could become a key part of the rotation up front, especially if he's able to add more size to his frame.
Jamal Woods, DT
A redshirt sophomore, Wood started the first four games last season before suffering a knee injury. As long as he's healthy, Woods should be a key contributor to the Illini's defensive line rotation. Before the injury, Woods was making his presence felt with 13 tackles (4 TFL), three pass breakups and a sack in four games.
Moses Okpala and Keith Randolph
Both three-star defensive ends may be called into action earlier than initially planned as a result of Roundtree's injury. Okpala (St. Louis, Mo.) and Randolph (Belleville, Ill.) are among the top-15 recruits in their respective states and top 50 in the nation among strong-side defensive ends. Both had offers to sign with other Power 5 programs such as Michigan State and Arkansas but instead chose to come to Champaign. If either can impress enough in fall camp they may find themselves added to the rotation but the new redshirt rule also means they can play up to four games without losing a year of eligibility.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.