Michael Buchanan has the makings of an outstanding Bandit. He is 6'-5", 225 pounds and has the quickness and aggressiveness required for the job. He was the clear leader on the depth chart until he made a mistake early this fall. He was arrested for DUI and was suspended from the team for several weeks.
Buchanan had no history of similar problems, but he must now go through all the counseling and legal requirements necessary to get his drivers license back and clear his name. Illinois coach Ron Zook evaluated the entire situation before reinstating the young man.
"He is about as remorseful as a guy can be, as he should be. He has apologized to his teammates. He knows that not only did he put his family and himself, but also this University and the football program in a bad light.
"They understand what is right and what is wrong. They make mistakes, absolutely. It is a situation that you have to deal with, and I think our guys understand that I am not going to take very much."
Buchanan worked out with the team every day but was unable to participate in games. In his absence, Justin Staples took over his starting job. Now reinstated, the two share time.
"Justin Staples was my backup in the summer," Buchanan explains. "He's a real good guy. He pushes me, I push him. That's what it's all about, having two guys playing the same position pushing each other. There's no selfishness, we both want each other to do good."
There had to be some rust on his return, but Buchanan believes he picked things back up quickly.
"Being a starter and going through the whole summer I had a lot of time at the position, and I was pretty comfortable. It wasn't too hard to adjust getting back. I came back into the flow of everything."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and outside linebackers coach Ron West see the Bandit as a marquee position. They were grooming Buchanan to fill those responsibilities, but his forced absence delayed his progression. Still, the young man likes the position he plays.
"I'm trying to grow into it. It's a tough position, but it's a very promising position in our defense. I'm just trying to get better every day. I haven't grown into it yet, so I'm gonna keep trying to grow.
"It's good to have a special name. I do like it. It's an exciting position. It's different than an outside linebacker position or the traditional defensive end position. So it will draw a lot of attention (from future recruits)."
Bandit is a complex position, and Buchanan says he will still be learning things two years from now when he's a senior. But he has already worked hard to perfect the role.
"My coaches have been working with me a lot with my footwork and my reads and playing a simplified technique, and I've been doing as much as I can to listen to Coach West and take in what he's been telling me. He pushes us a lot, but it's good."
Buchanan is somewhat slender for the position, but he also must be fast. Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez has been helping him with both.
"We've been working on speed a lot. I have pretty good strength. Coach Lou does a great job getting us ready, but I can always get stronger."
The Michigan game, where the defense gave up a whopping 676 yards of total offense, belied what has otherwise been an excellent season for the defense. It is possible a more tentative style was the root cause, as it is opposite what the team has done the rest of the season.
"We have a very aggressive attitude. It's pretty much like a hit-them-in-the-mouth attitude. Take no prisoners, just get after the ball.
"We do a lot of different things from a lot of different looks. It's really exciting to play in this new defense. It's a multiple defense, and there's a lot of different looks."
Most likely, the Illini defense will rebound and play better this week. After all, they were trained well and are determined to have an entirely different season than what happened in 2009.
"The intensity level is a lot higher. Our coaches demand that, our players demand that, our team leaders demand that. Everybody is accounted for from first to fourth string. Our team leaders have stepped up and pushed us. It's a completely turned around attitude."