Newton, Randolph Lead Nations Top Defense

December 29, 2022

By Joey Johnston

The Illinois defense, ranked No. 1 nationally, must weather a few changes heading its game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at the ReliaQuest Bowl on Jan. 2 at Raymond James Stadium.

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has been hired as Purdue's head coach.

Cornerback Devon Witherspoon and safety Sydney Brown opted for the NFL Draft and won't be in the lineup.

As usual, the Illini will rely on their "Law Firm'' of Newton and Randolph, the defensive cornerstones. Defensive tackles Jer'Zhan "Johnny'' Newton (from Clearwater Central Catholic) and Keith Randolph Jr., have been nothing but reliable and productive for Illinois 'knockout defense.

Newton (6-foot-2, 295 pounds) and Randolph (6-5, 305) have combined on 26 tackles for a loss - the most by an defensive-line combo in the country - while also combining for a nation-leading 81 quarterback pressures. Newton leads the nation in quarterback hits (19) and ranks sixth in pressures (54).

Newton tied Pittsburgh's Calijah Kancey, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, for the most TFLs (14.0) by any defensive lineman from a Power Five conference team. Meanwhile, Randolph was right behind with 13.0 TFLs.

"It starts up front and those guys give us a lot of power that sets the tone for the entire defense,'' Illinois coach Bret Bielema said.

When Bielema got the Illinois job, he inherited dozens of players who were recruited by Lovie Smith, the former coach. Sometimes, inherited players aren't good fits for the new coaching staff. In the case of Newton and Randolph, that was never a question.

Bielema is delighted that Newton will get to display his talent in the hometown.

"He's just scratching the surface of what he could become,'' Bielema said. "He's extremely gifted athletically. Five minutes into meeting him, I knew he was the real deal. Great lower body, very thick, very powerful.

"But his personality is what gets you. It's off the charts. On our bye week, I was in Provo, Utah and my phone rings. It's Johnny. He's watching Monday Night Football. He says, 'Coach, did you see that rip uppercut, the way that D-lineman finished and got that sack? 'He's just a football junkie. It matters to him.''

It matters to Randolph, too.

"We bump heads sometimes, but that's the way it is with family,'' Randolph told reporters earlier this season. That's my boy, my brother (Newton). I love him.''

"Honestly, it's like playing (alongside) myself,'' Newton said. "I can count on him.''

Last spring, Randolph and Newton decided they wanted single-digit uniform numbers, which has become all the rage among college defensive players. Randolph won a rock-paper-scissors competition to get No. 0, which he joked was reserved for the best-looking player on the team.

But when fall camp commenced, Newton had his No. 4, but Randolph thought better of the number switch and maintained his No. 88.

The numbers that matter, though, are the statistics. Newton was voted All-Big Ten Conference first team by the coaches and media. Randolph was a third-team selection.

Newton and Randolph are catalysts on the nation's top-ranked defensive unit, which allows just 263.8 yards per game and is holding opponents to a pass efficiency rating of 89.77 (the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision since Alabama in 2011).

Newton and Randolph.

The final judgment has been rendered for this Law Firm. Heading into the ReliaQuest Bowl, they are the defensive pillars.