Keith Gilmore Talks Illini Defensive Line

The Fighting Illini football team lost two of its three defensive line starters from last season, one to graduation and one to the first round of the NFL draft. The job of replacing them and developing depth belongs to Illini defensive line assistant Keith Gilmore. He has some talent available.

The loss of star defensive tackle Corey Liuget to the NFL was a tough blow to accept for the Illinois football team. He was a great player and inspirational leader, and senior defensive end Clay Nurse wasn't far behind. Keith Gilmore must find replacements and develop depth at a defensive end and two defensive tackle spots.

The biggest spring news was the move of fifth year offensive tackle Craig Wilson to defense. Gilmore discussed Wilson's progress through spring drills.

"He's answering the call. He's been working hard and doing extra work every day. Each day is a growing process for him. I think by the time we suit up against Arkansas State, I think he'll be okay.

"It's all new to him. We've got to make sure we do some things that he's good at. You know, not do the same things we've done if it does not fit his personality or abilities.

"Right now, I think he's good at stopping the run, staying in his gap, single gap type things. We're trying to get him to get better with his movements and that kind of stuff. So I think he can do a good job at the point of attack."

The 6'-5" Wilson weighs in the 320-330 range. Does he need to lose weight to be successful?

"We'll evaluate that. At this point, I don't see that as being an issue as he runs well. I think technique and awareness is the biggest thing at this point."

Wilson suffered from lack of confidence on offense. Was that a problem for him in spring drills?

"I don't think so. He's growing and maturing a little bit, and he's welcoming the challenge that he's given. He's rising to the occasion."

The only returning line starter is Akeem Spence. The sophomore is placing a lot of pressure on his shoulders to perform at peak efficiency while also providing leadership. Is that too much pressure too soon for the youngster?

"He's the guy with the most experience. The kid played a lot of football; he was a freshman All-American, so he's got to push himself to make the next step. This is his time. That's what he needs to do at this point."

Spence is a natural shade or nose tackle, but he has been moved to Liuget's 3-technique position, where quickness rushing the passer is a necessity.

"I think he's started to learn how to push himself. The thing with Corey, once the light came on he understood he had to play fast every down. I think that Akeem could do the same thing."

Depth at the two tackle spots is a concern. Right now, senior walkon Wisdom Onyegbule and redshirt freshmen Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe are competing for backup spots.

"I think it's a tossup between Austin, Wisdom and Jake at this point. We'll find two out of those three.

"Wisdom has done some things. He's been sporadic, off and on, but we know he's got some abilities. Just bearing down and doing it every day. But at this point, he's an older guy, he's a mature guy. He should be a little ahead of those guys.

"We're trying to take the young guys and bring them up to speed. We'll shake it all out when the time comes."

What must Teitsma and Howe do to climb the depth chart?

"Just coming off the football and having the confidence of knowing what they're doing. You know, going against the older guys, the mental part of the game. They were on the scout team last year, where you didn't have to think about what you were doing. Just come off and play. And now you've got a bunch of responsibilities. I think that's slowed them down just a little bit."

Entering freshman Chris Jones holds promise for the future. Gilmore was asked which tackle spot is better for him.

"At this point, it just depends on how the other guys shake out. We will start him at a shade. If he's quick enough and athletic enough, we can make him a three. But those guys have to do both, so I don't get caught up on that as much."

The top two defensive ends both have experience. Whitney Mercilus and Glenn Foster are capable and may be ready to blossom.

"Whitney has always been a steady player for us, and he's coming along real well. He's very conscientious. We're trying to get him going and be a little more daring, take a few more chances. I think he was starting to make a few more plays that way. He's a solid guy. He'll be a leader for us."

Gilmore confirms Foster has shown more consistency lately.

"Yes he has. Glenn has always had a high motor. We're just trying to make sure he plays with the proper technique and does the proper assignments. But his effort and energy is always good. He had a pretty good spring.

Redshirt sophomore Tim Kynard plays both there and at the Bandit position coached by Ron West.

"I feel like Whitney and Glenn will be our guys at the 5-technique, and then Kynard was kind of a third guy. He right now is our swing guy.

"(Mike) Buchanan and (Justin) Staples are on the other side, and Kynard is the third guy there. That way we'll keep him in the mix, one way or the other.

"He's definitely improved. I think he's playing with a little more confidence and gotten a little stronger now. That always helps. I think he's got a little better understanding what we're trying to do."

Kynard made a brilliant interception during the spring, and his number was prominent on several other occasions.

"He was a basketball player, and he's a good athlete. He's been in the right place at the right time on a few plays. That's all good. You always like to see a guy have some success."

Redshirt freshman D.J. Woods was buried on the depth chart to begin the spring, but circumstances gave him a chance to show what he could do.

"You know what, he hadn't had many opportunities, but the last week he had an opportunity, and I'm seeing some promise in him. With Whitney having an injury, and with Kynard moving over to Bandit, he had an opportunity to move up a spot.

"The first couple days he was slow, but the next couple days he kind of picked it up a little bit. I see some things."

Perhaps the biggest concern coming out of spring ball is the pass rush. The Illini must apply consistent pressure to opposing quarterbacks to prevent them from picking apart the secondary. Gilmore feels the pass rush is coming along.

"I think Mike Buchanan is really coming along, and with the combination of Glenn and Whitney, we'll get some things off the ends. And then we've got to make a pass rush with some different things we do.

"We're not a four-down, beat you off the ball, Tampa Bay type defense. But I think in the proper situations, we'll get what we need."

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