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Ditch your dismissive first thoughts about Illinois’ secondary

Illinois junior safety Earnest Thomas (9) will have lot help from underclassmen secondary this season. | Jay LaPrete/AP

Illinois junior safety Earnest Thomas (9) will have a lot of help from underclassmen in the secondary this season. | Jay LaPrete/AP

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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:46AM



The easy thing to do would be to chalk up Illinois’ secondary as another team weakness.

Only junior strong safety Earnest Thomas returns with any substantial starting experience. The lone member of the current roster who had more than one interception in 2012 is Steve Hull, who has been switched to wide receiver for his senior season.

The Illini were worst in the Big Ten in pass-efficiency defense a year ago. And now coach Tim Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks are faced with the prospect of starting three or more freshmen or sophomores in the secondary, if you count their hybrid ‘‘Star’’ position as more of a safety than a linebacker. (Feel free to; Banks does.)

A weakness? That might be putting it mildly.

Except for one thing, and this is where you should listen closely: The Illini secondary is oozing with potential and promise.

When word came Friday that sophomore Eric Finney, a sophomore junior-college transfer pegged to start at the Star spot, hadn’t severely injured his knee as originally feared, it was a tremendous boost to the defense. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery Thursday to repair some minor damage, Finney has a chance to be on the field as soon as the Aug.  31 opener against Southern Illinois.

True freshman cornerback Darius Mosely and true freshman free safety Caleb Day aren’t first-teamers on the current depth chart, but both could be starting before long, too.

‘‘They’re all as good as advertised in terms of the skill sets they’re bringing,’’ Banks said. ‘‘Day’s extremely long. Mosely’s extremely fast. And Finney’s extremely aggressive.’’

The depth chart entering training camp listed sophomore cornerbacks Eaton Spence and V’Angelo Bentley and redshirt freshman Taylor Barton as starters. With Finney out, redshirt freshman B.J. Bello is in at the Star. The only sure-thing starter in the secondary is Thomas; no matter who surrounds him, the Illini will be crazy-young on the back end.

One can — and perhaps should — choose to look at that as a good thing, or at least as a promising thing. Coming off a 2-10 season, Beckman and his staff can’t take their time in Champaign for granted. But if they can make it through 2013 with any sort of momentum, young quarterbacks Aaron Bailey and Wes Lunt won’t be the only reasons for hope that winning days are near.

By 2014, Illinois’ secondary could be one of the best in the Big Ten.

‘‘The reality of it is we are young, but we don’t really look down the road. We try to figure out what we can get done this year,” Banks said. ‘‘But if we play to the level we need to play at, the future will be bright because all those guys will be back.’’

Beckman marvels at Mosely’s package of skills: ‘‘Great feet, great acceleration, tremendous ball skills.’’

Finney calls Day an athletic ‘‘freak.”

These are nice things to hear. As is Beckman’s enthusiasm when discussing his cornerbacks — emphasis on ‘‘his.’’ Beckman added to his duties by assigning himself the role of cornerbacks coach.

No matter what you think of him as a head coach, Beckman earned his stripes in the profession coaching defensive backs. He’ll accelerate this group’s development. You can bank on it.

Lately, he’s been raving about former Crete-Monee state champion Jaylen Dunlap, another true freshman corner.

‘‘I’m biased,” he said, “but I love what I’m seeing.’’

He was talking about one player, but he could have been referring to a handful of them. And that’s in the secondary alone.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com
Twitter: @SLGreenberg



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