RANTOUL -- He's from Florida, just like Corey Liuget. He's a powerful, low-center-of-gravity kind of guy like Liuget. With the Illinois football team looking for another defensive tackle like Liuget, the leading candidate -- and only candidate to take over for the loss of Liuget, who was taken with the 18th pick in the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers in April -- is Akeem Spence, a 6-foot-1, 305-pound sophomore from Fort Walton Beach.

RANTOUL -- He's from Florida, just like Corey Liuget. He's a powerful, low-center-of-gravity kind of guy like Liuget.

With the Illinois football team looking for another defensive tackle like Liuget, the leading candidate -- and only candidate to take over for the loss of Liuget, who was taken with the 18th pick in the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers in April -- is Akeem Spence, a 6-foot-1, 305-pound sophomore from Fort Walton Beach.

"I can't be the next Corey Liuget,'' Spence said. "I can be the next Akeem Spence.''
If he follows the blueprint used by Liuget, it might work. After shedding nearly 30 pounds prior to last season, Liuget found another gear, made himself into a playmaker and left for the NFL after his junior season. Spence doesn't have weight issues, but he's still learning about taking the intensity to the next level.

Spence will have a target on his back rather than playing in the shadows of a star.

"He's no longer Robin,'' said defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. "He's Batman. He's the guy people will focus on.''

Liuget showed him how it's done but also set the bar high by finishing with 63 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. Spence had 45 tackles, four tackles for a loss and one sack.

"I'm excited,'' Spence said. "At the same time, there's pressure. I've got to make the plays he made, do the things he did, be where I'm supposed to be like he was, do everything right like he did. There's a little pressure, but I love it.''

On a defense that's had trouble in Camp Rantoul stopping the other side of the ball, the Illini could use a big season from Spence.

"We need Akeem to be that if we want to meet our aspirations,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

Spence is the only defensive tackle with any experience. He will start alongside Craig Wilson, a massive 6-5, 320-pound converted offensive lineman playing on defense for the first time.

Senior Wisdom Onyebule, who came to Illinois as a walk-on, plus freshmen Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma are the backups. Spence sprained an ankle Tuesday but returned to the practice field Wednesday morning. He's the most irreplacable player on defense. If quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the one the Illini can't afford to lose, Spence is second on the list.

The coaching staff is pushing Spence hard on the Camp Rantoul practice fields.

"I expect him to do what Corey did last year,'' said Koenning. "From this point, this is when Corey started to bloom during Rantoul. Akeem has the ability to be the same player. We'll see if he has what it takes inside. I don't know if Corey knew he had it.''

Said coach Ron Zook: "At this time a year ago, there weren't a lot of people who were excited about Corey either. He came on and had a great season. Those guys down in the briar patch, they ought to improve each year as a player.''

Undoubtedly, Spence has a much harder workload because defenses won't be keying on somebody else.

"A lot of it is just mental,'' Gilmore said. "He has to understand the urgency of it. Sometimes with younger guys, they don't. He's a redshirt sophomore thrust into this position to be a leader. It's a little early for him.''

With Liuget gone, Spence and the Illini have no other choice.

NOTABLE: Senior Matt Eller, who was competing with freshman Justin DuVernois at punter, has left the team after Zook said earlier in the week DuVernois held a slight lead in the position battle. Reserve running back Bud Golden has also left the team with plans to transfer in search of playing time. ... Defensive linemen Will Davis, Corey Liuget, Brandon Moore, Chris Norwell and Derrick Strong were named to the Illini's all-decade team from 2000-2010. The 31-player team will be released through Aug. 26. 

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

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By the numbers

Here's how Illinois ranked last season among Big Ten defenses.

4. Rushing defense 130.8 yards
6. Passing defense 220.6
5. Total defense 351.3
2. Sacks 23