Harding embracing role as Illini defensive leader

Sports

URBANA (WCIA) — Dele Harding has one last shot in his final season with the Illini and it’s a year the senior plans on making memorable.

“That’s something you just can’t run away from, you got to play everyday like it’s your last,” Harding said. “Coming off what we did last year, we definitely just want progress.”

Harding was one of the Illini’s top recruits in the 2016 class but played primarily on special teams his first few years, battling several injuries that forced him to miss 10 games. The middle linebacker broke out last year, starting twice, recording 37 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss. Now he’s the leader on the defense at middle linebacker, replacing Del’Shawn Phillips, who is on the Atlanta Falcons preseason roster.

“His shoes are definitely big to fill with the year he had his senior year,” Harding said. “So I’m just looking to take that role and progress off of his mistakes.”

“He’s a good football player, had an outstanding offseason, getting stronger and all of that,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said about Harding. “He knows the defense as well as anyone so he’ll have a big role for us this year.”

Fueling Harding’s motivation this season is the work he’s been putting in the weight room. Harding says this is the strongest he’s ever been and hopes that will help him stay injury-free this season. The Maryland native says setting the tone off the field, is just as important as anything he does on it.

“Just being the ‘Mike’ (linebacker) within the defense you just got to be that vocal leader,” Harding said.

Along with him finding his voice on the team, it’s his actions on the field that he hopes will help the Illini to a bowl game this season, something they haven’t done since 2014.

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