Keith Gilmore is beginning his third year as Illinois defensive line coach. He helped develop Corey Liuget into a top-level NFL prospect, but he now faces the daunting task of replacing his star defensive tackle. Does he have someone ready to step in?
"We would hope so. I kind of go by the philosophy of next man in. I'm gonna coach whatever guys are here. Corey is a great loss, not only as a player but as a person and as a leader on this football team. He'll be missed greatly. But I'm not gonna let that keep us from our focus, which is to continue to win and build this defensive front."
Surprisingly, the first player Gilmore mentioned as a possible replacement wasn't with the defense last year. Fifth year senior Craig Wilson has toiled on the offensive line the past four years, but he still hasn't earned significant playing time. Gilmore hopes the athletic Wilson, who can do one-handed cartwheels with ease, can find a home on defense.
"We brought Craig Wilson over from the offensive line. I hope to get something out of him. Physically, he's got some intangibles that you look for. Hopefully I can get him coached up to the point he can give us some play.
"He's athletic, he's big, he's tough. Maybe offensive line was not his forte. Maybe he was meant to be a defensive lineman. I'm gonna try to keep it simple for him, let him have fun and come off the football, create some havoc and eat up some space. Let's see what happens."
One defensive tackle spot is set with redshirt sophomore Akeem Spence returning after being named a Freshman All-American in 2010. Behind him and Wilson are two redshirt freshmen and a walkon.
"At this point, we've got five tackles in the program that should be solid for us with Austin Teitsma, Jake Howe and Wisdom Onyegbule. Spence is gonna have to step up and be good. He played a lot of football for us.
"He's young to be counted on to be a leader, but if you think about it, he's going into his third year. Corey last year was a third year player, so hopefully we can get Spence to step up and be a leader."
The physically imposing Spence played the nose or "shade" tackle last year, but Gilmore is considering all possibilities.
"At this point I'm gonna play around with it a little bit in the spring. I'm gonna move him out and try to play the spot Corey played. Move him out to the 3-technique and have Austin Teitsma be there as well. And look at Craig and Jake Howe as nose guards, some bigger guys, plugger-type guys.
"I think with Akeem's experience, and his confidence level being where it should be, then maybe he can move into that next role and be more of a force for us out in the 3-technique. I'll mix and match a little bit in the course of the spring and try to come up with a combination."
Teitsma was a defensive end and wrestling champ in high school, but he is a workout warrior who Illinois coaches hope will continue to bulk up to play tackle. Gilmore believes he will be big enough for the position by fall.
"I think so. He's extremely strong, he's very aggressive. We do a lot of movement up front. We've got to do things to help him in the scheme of things and not let him be a sitting duck where guys double-team him. Based on the types of things we can teach him to do, I think he'll be fine."
Howe was recruited originally as a fullback, so he and Teitsma were learning new positions during their rookie campaigns. Having those extra bowl game practices helped out a lot.
"It was phenomenal progress that they made. I was really pleased. It was fun to coach those guys, seeing where they came from in early training camp to the end of the bowl practices.
"That bowl practice time helped those guys tremendously because I was able to spend time with them and coach them. During the season, you get caught up in your weekly preparations, and those guys weren't on the travel team. So I didn't get a chance to coach them or spend as much time with them.
"But I think they're a year more mature and have a little more confidence about themselves. Especially Jake, who was not really a defensive lineman. The progress that they made was unbelievable. I'm excited to coach them this spring."
It appears one senior squadman has decided to forego future eligibility. Daryle Ballew had an injury-plagued career.
"Ballew at this point is not with the program. He's not been working out, and I don't know if he plans to come back. He's a senior, at the end of his career. Academically, I'm pretty sure he could graduate soon here. So maybe that's his mindset."
Glenn Foster was moved from end to tackle to add depth last fall, but he may be better at end. Gilmore has the option of playing him at both positions, but he will work primarily as an end in spring ball.
"Glenn Foster will be a swing guy. We'll try him at defensive end, and maybe in some pass rush situations down at tackle."
Foster wore a shoulder harness most of last fall to protect a loose shoulder joint. It restricted his movement and thus his play on the field. Fortunately, his shoulder is better now.
"Glenn's fine. He hasn't shown any problems. He took off the harness close to the end of the year. I guess he felt confident enough to take it off, and I think he played better once he took it off.
"He was kind of restricted. It's tough to play on the defensive front if you can't lift your arms. From a medical standpoint, nobody said anything needs to be done. He's resting it and working out, so I think he'll be good."
Foster will be competing with fellow junior Whitney Mercilus for a starting spot at end. Mercilus has continued to bulk up, and he has proven to be a tenacious defender.
"I'm very confident with Whit. Whit has played a lot of football around here. He hasn't been a starter per se, but he's played with me for two years. I feel confident in his abilities.
"A little bit of pressure will be applied to Whitney to step up from his comfort zone and be a guy. I really believe that he can. With the combination of he and Glenn Foster, we have two solid guys there. Hopefully Tim Kynard will improve and come around as a backup guy. I think that position could be pretty good."
Kynard had shoulder surgery and missed much of his first fall practice. He played on the punt team last fall but saw minimal time with the defense.
"As the year progressed, there's only so many reps you can get guys. We felt Clay (Nurse) and Whitney were gonna be our two guys. We just went with those two, and Tim had to be put on the back burner a little bit.
"There were points during the year where he was up with the varsity and took some reps with us. I think he had a decent knowledge of what we were doing, but he wasn't ready to be put into prime time situations. He would come to my meetings and try to stay abreast of it, but when you're not practicing it you're not really doing it to retain it."
Redshirt freshman D.J. Woods will also compete for playing time this spring. He is basically an unknown at this point.
"D.J. is maturing. He gained some weight, and I think he's getting big enough. The defense was coming kind of tough for him, just processing the information and taking the meeting room to the field. That happens with defensive linemen. I don't expect many defensive linemen to come in and be real contributors. He'll be fine.
"I think he's probably put on 30 pounds since he's been here. When he came in, he was more of a slender type guy. That kind of held him back to some degree. I don't think he was in a program that was a serious weight room program. So he's just getting his body where it's in a position to compete."
Gilmore will add as many as five freshmen to the mix next fall. He talks about his rookies in part two of this interview.