Illinois Coach Ron Zook saw growth in his defense during spring ball.
"Our number one goal was to not give up big plays. I think we made progress there. And I think we're a much better tackling football team than we were last fall. We worked on it every day."
Zook feels the biggest improvement came in the secondary, now led by former NFL secondary coach Mike Gillhamer.
"I think the secondary is one of the most improved groups on the team. We've got some depth there. And we've got a lot of guys that have made improvement there, not only technique-wise but confidence-wise. Hammer's done a great job with those guys."
There was minimal depth in the secondary in 2010. Tavon Wilson, Trulon Henry, Justin Green and Travon Bellamy handled nearly every snap, and they tired late in the season and in the fourth quarter of games.
Cornerback Terry Hawthorne helped some, but he wasn't fully recovered from a stress fracture in his foot. Safeties Steve Hull and Pat Nixon-Youman were inexperienced and also had injury concerns. Safety Supo Sanni sat out the year with a torn Achilles tendon.
Now, all but Bellamy return. Wilson moved back to cornerback, giving the Illini three excellent corners. Converted receiver Jack Ramsey gained a comfort level on the field side, and he began to play with abandon late in the spring.
Fifth year senior Miami Thomas completed his first spring practice free of injury since his freshman year. Henry, Sanni, Hull and Nixon-Youman give a two-deep look to the two safety spots. Five rookies will join the competition this summer. Zook likes the look of the secondary.
"I really do. You've got a bunch of guys that can win for you."
Zook realizes how important an addition Gillhamer has been to the program.
"The thing that's really been fun for me to watch is to watch them watch Coach Gillhamer. I told them, 'Here's a guy that's been coaching your position in the National Football League for the last seven years. If you have aspirations of getting there, he knows how to get you there and what it's gonna take.'
"It's really been fun to watch. Those guys are all ears and trying to do everything he asks them to do. He's done a great job with them. He and I coach exactly the same way and think the same things. I like what they're doing right now."
The linebacker corps misses Martez Wilson, who appears set to go high in the NFL draft. Three of the four scholarship linebackers in the spring are freshmen, meaning there could be growing pains. Fortunately, experienced senior Ian Thomas has returned to full health and began to serve a leadership role in the middle.
Thomas is a natural middle linebacker, and it is hoped he can have as good or better year than two years ago, when he also played MIKE. Backing him is Brandon Denmark, who is woefully lacking in experience at the position.
Denmark was an outside linebacker in high school, and he saw playing time at Bandit last fall. He has good height at 6'-3", and he has nearly the quickness of Martez Wilson. But he still is uncertain where to go when. Thomas may need to stay healthy and take most of the reps until Denmark can prove consistently reliable.
There are concerns at WILL also, but the two freshmen battling there are excellent prospects who need only experience. Jonathan Brown saw playing time last fall and proved to have instincts for the position. He also had an interception and long return despite being overweight. At times, he was exceptional this spring.
Houston Bates redshirted last fall, although Zook said he kicked himself for not playing him. A high school defensive end, Bates needed time to adjust to a new position. He flashed aggressiveness and sound tackling this spring. He also impressed coming off the edge in blitz situations.
With time, the combo of Brown and Bates could be one of the best at the UI in awhile. The only question is whether their youthfulness will be exploited by opponents early. The Illini will undoubtedly try to get rookies Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper ready in case they are needed for additional depth.
Coach Ron West's outside linebackers proved competent if not excellent this spring. Bandits Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples both made plays at that complex position. They both have experience and can build on their previous knowledge. If they remain healthy, they could provide a quality one-two punch at that important position.
The Illini saw Nathan Bussey graduate, but replacement Ashante Williams has experience and began to show consistency this spring. He was named Most Improved defensive player, and with good reason. With continued work, he could be a quality replacement for Bussey.
Redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas backs him, and he has potential there. He began to make some plays late in the spring, but he needs experience. A freshman may get a shot at SAM also.
The defensive line will miss Corey Liuget, a likely first round NFL draft choice. He cannot be replaced. Without him, there are definite pass rush concerns.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning may need to mix in a combination of blitzes to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Fortunately, secondary improvement might allow more blitzes as there is more trust in man-to-man coverage.
Senior Craig Wilson was moved from offense to bolster the defensive line. A large, agile specimen, he appears to be an experiment worth the effort. While he lacks technique and the quickness to zoom past offensive linemen in pass protection, he appears to be a good run stuffer who can clog the middle and occupy blockers to provide clear space for linebackers to make plays.
Freshman All-American Akeem Spence benefitted from the double teams on Liuget last year, but he won't have that advantage this season. He was moved to Liuget's three-technique position, which requires more agility and quickness. He can't replace Liuget, but hopefully he can serve a valuable role there. He is working hard to be a leader for the d-line.
Tackle backups are problematic at this time. Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe have potential, but they are freshmen who played other positions in high school. Plus, Teitsma is still undersized at 265 pounds and must continue to build strength and bulk. He has the aggressiveness needed once he gets bigger.
Senior walkon Wisdom Onyegbule made a few plays this spring, and he may see playing time. But like Teitsma and Howe, he has drawbacks that may limit his effectiveness. A rookie may need to get ready quickly to help at tackle.
Whitney Mercilus appeared comfortable at defensive end before smashing his finger in a weight training accident and sitting out the last week of spring ball. He has had two years experience backing the graduated Clay Nurse, and he now has the size and strength to compete. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for it with tenaciousness and intelligence.
Glenn Foster backs Mercilus, and he has the athleticism to do the job. However, inconsistency remains a concern with him. Tim Kynard became a utility man this spring, providing depth at both end and Bandit. He is athletic, so it is hoped he can develop quickly there. Freshman D.J. Woods is improving but may not be ready yet.
Looking on the bright side, there was growth in the defensive line through the spring according to Zook.
"I think we'll surprise a lot of people. I feel pretty good about them. We've got to continue to improve, but I think they will."
Koenning will have his defense playing aggressively and with confidence. If everyone remains healthy, the UI defense could be improved over last season.
Special teams will be discussed in part 3, along with a general overview of the spring.