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Illinois Football: 5 Defensive Fighting Illini Players to Watch in 2020

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Defense has been the foundation every team Lovie Smith has coached throughout the years. And that foundation remains the same for his Illinois Fighting Illini. For as much attention as the offense got last season, the defense also had playmakers who made a difference. And the Illini will put yet another stout defensive unit on the field for the 2020 season. Here are five defenders that are ready to give opposing offenses trouble this year.

Isaiah Gay, DE

He's already recorded 67 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, and three sacks during his time in Champaign. And now he's out to increase those numbers as the Illini must fill the void left behind by Oluwole Betiku Jr. Last season was a strong one for edge rushers in the Big Ten, and Gay hopes to continue that trend.

Jamal Woods, DT

With Isaiah Gay looking to wreak havoc on the outside, Woods looks to bring the pain up the middle. He's quick off the line for a player of his size (6-2, 290), and he's already accumulated 18 games of collegiate experience. He's also made the most of his game reps (51 tackles, 13 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, three pass deflections, one forced fumble). With Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa among the high-profile teams on this year's schedule, the Illini will need their defensive line to be on point and at their best.

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Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler, LBs

Both men racked up the numbers last year, combining for 135 tackles, 26 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and eight forced fumbles. They were making plays all over the field, whether it was against the run or the pass. Eifler will have an even bigger role this year now that Dele Harding has graduated. And like last season, Hansen will once again be counted upon for leadership.

Sydney Brown, DB

The Canadian-born Brown was the Illini's second-leading tackler with 88 stops in 2019, and he also led Illinois with three interceptions. His big-play ability was on display when he returned an interception 76 yards for a touchdown in the Illini's upset of Michigan State. Brown is one of the linchpins of this defense, and there's a possibility that he could leave school early for the NFL if he puts together another strong season.

— 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.

(Top photo courtesy of (@IlliniFootball)