Justin Staples was a SAM linebacker last fall. He was moved to defensive end in the spring to use his quickness rushing the passer. When the Illini experienced depth problems at Bandit this fall, it was Staples who moved to fill in. He is now a starter and coming into his own.
He likes his latest position.
"I'm feeling real good. I'm picking up on the Bandit position, and I like it a lot. It's a real good position for me. It allows me to be more out in space and more athletic than at defensive end. I can use a little more of my linebacker techniques I got recruited for. The type of stuff I did in high school. It's a nice position."
Staples was a force in the Indiana game. He had only three tackles, but two of them were for losses. He caused a fumble, and it was his pressure on IU quarterback Ben Chappell that forced an errant throw that was picked off by Pat Nixon-Youman and returned for a touchdown.
Staples describes the fumble play.
"Akeem Spence stood the guy up at first. I came in from my left side and saw the ball hanging out. It's a drill we practice almost every day. I stripped the ball out and Ian (Thomas) was able to recover it."
With the Hoosiers passing on most downs, Staples and his defensive line mates could pin their ears back and rush the passer with abandon. He enjoyed himself, but he likes the challenge of playing the run also.
"As a pass rusher you love that type of game, but I also love the run downhill physical-type guys. That's really a test to see where you are."
Like all his teammates, Staples thinks more about team than self.
"We had a good day. Everybody was at the right spot at the right time. Coach (Ron) Zook says nobody cares who makes the plays, we just have to be there at the right time to make the plays."
The redshirt sophomore has started the last couple games, but he shares time with Michael Buchanan and must compete with him for playing time.,/P>
"Me and Mike have a rotation. It's gonna be a week by week thing."
The Lakewood, Ohio, product has gained strength and weight since the spring, but he could use more.
"Right now I'm about 240. It's about 5 pounds more than I was in the spring. I'm feeling a lot stronger and a lot faster than the spring. I'm maturing, and I really like this new defense."
Staples continues to learn defensive end as well as Bandit, and he has seen time at both positions this fall. He admits Bandit is better for him at his present weight since he doesn't have to wrestle 300 pound linemen all the time.
"No, not as much. I'm pretty much on tight ends, a 5-technique more. So I'm not having to fight double teams you find more at the defensive end spot.
"At this point, I'm just willing to do whatever the coaches want me to do. I'm just learning both positions. I'll play anywhere they want me."
The new defense is really taking hold. It is exciting to players and fans alike how well Illinois has improved defensively.
"The defense is really coming along great. The spring was a big learning period for us, so we can play as fast as we are now. We're getting after it and making big plays. We're eliminating mistakes and having fun with the defense."
All through spring and fall practices, the Illini offense and defense fought each other for supremacy. But Staples says the competition brought the two units closer.
"We're a real close team. Everybody takes care of each other, offense and defense. We all love each other. We're all one unit."