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High school football preview: The top 10 defensive players

A look at 10 defensive players to watch in the area. A highly ranked national player and two Illinois recruits highlight the list.

Evanston football player Sebastian Cheeks at practice, Monday, August 9, 2021.
Evanston football player Sebastian Cheeks at practice, Monday, August 9, 2021.
Kevin Tanak/For the Sun-Times

Over the next three weeks we will count down the top 10 teams in the preseason Super 25 and look at the 10 best players at key positions. The preview starts up with a look at 10 defensive players to watch in the area. A highly ranked national player and two Illinois recruits highlight the list.

1. Sebastian Cheeks, Evanston

His first offer was as a running back, but the 6-3, 210-pounder’s recruitment took off when college coaches saw him play linebacker as a sophomore. He’s OK with that development: “I knew I just wanted to hit.” One of four four-star Chicago-area prospects in the senior class, Cheeks is 130th in the 247Sports.com composite national rankings and committed to North Carolina.

2. Jared Badie, Oswego East

The 6-5, 212-pounder is headed to Illinois as a linebacker, but Wolves coach Tyson LeBlanc expects him eventually to dominate as an edge rusher. The three-star prospect is Oswego East’s second- or third-fastest player, according to LeBlanc, and he’s also good enough at basketball to play AAU for Team Rose.

3. Malachi Hood, Joliet Catholic

Another linebacker committed to Illinois, Hood had 20 tackles and a sack this spring for the Hilltoppers. The 6-2, 210-pounder originally thought he was destined to play basketball, but realized his future was in football when he arrived at Joliet Catholic.

4. Saveon Brown, Thornwood

Brown is a consensus top-25 player in the state’s senior class and the top-ranked defensive back. The 6-1, 187-pound safety is healthy after dealing with an injury in the abbreviated spring season. He’s committed to Western Michigan.

5. Roy Williams, Shepard

Promoted to the varsity as a sophomore in 2019, Williams had 41 tackles, eight tackles for loss and three sacks. The Northern Illinois recruit missed all but one series this spring because of a knee injury, but is healthy again, and bigger and stronger at 6-7, 245.

6. TJ McMillen. St. Francis

One of the state’s best multisport athletes, McMillen hit .485 for the Spartans baseball team this spring and is the top local defensive prospect in the junior class. The 6-4, 235-pound defensive lineman has Power Five offers from Arizona State, Missouri, Penn State, Syracuse, TCU and Texas Tech.

7. Roderick Pierce, Brother Rice

The 6-3, 265-pound defensive lineman has Power Five offers from Illinois and Kentucky, and should add to that list as more schools see his junior film from this fall.

8. Tyler Jansey, Batavia

The junior linebacker is in line to become the next defensive star in a program known for them. The 6-1, 215-pounder had a team-best 5.5 sacks to go along with six tackles for loss in just five games this spring. He has a Wisconsin offer, and should be in line for plenty more.

9. Damon Walters, Bolingbrook

The 6-1, 175-pounder is on track to be the third Division I football player in his family following brothers Brandon (Army) and Justin (Notre Dame). Damon, a junior safety, has offers from Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Iowa State and Syracuse.

10. Diego Oliver, Kenwood

One of the Public League’s top defenders, Oliver is a 6-foot, 182-pound cornerback. He’s committed to Eastern Illinois.