The Illinois defense was much improved in 2010, thanks in large part to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who brought passion, aggressiveness and heart to a team that needed it. With a year in his system, Illini defenders are starting the fall in far better position than last year at this time.
True, Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Nathan Bussey were all drafted by the NFL. Defensive end Clay Nurse and cornerback Travon Bellamy have signed as NFL free agents. Expected SAM starter Ashante Williams will miss at least the first part of the season after a suspension. On paper, the Illini appear to be in a weakened condition.
But the Illini don't see it that way. They no longer have to think about what they are doing and can fly around with reckless abandon. They are uplifted by a winning season and rousing triumph over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. And they are eager to follow the passionate exultations of their defensive coordinator and position coaches.
There are no superstars, but that isn't always a bad thing. The best teams have chemistry and teamwork that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Illini players are convinced their swarming, gang-tackling group will make up for any lack of individual talent.
Plus, they also realize the best defense is a great offense. With the Illini offense expected to rack up big scores in most games, and with it using ball control to eat up clock, it can keep the defense off the field. Unlike last year, when the UI defense wore down in the fourth quarter, a rested defense can play at peak efficiency throughout each game.
Koenning has been working hard to develop depth at all positions, and he will use more players than last year to keep everyone fresh. Two heads are often better than one, and two or more players at each position can share responsibility for their assignments. In the long run, the team will benefit.
We can talk about individual players, but even they may prefer the anonymity of the team game over individual recognition. We know Whitney Mercilus and Glenn Foster will share defensive end, with Tim Kynard rotating there and at Bandit to support Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples. Freshman Bandit Darrius Caldwell has impressed this summer.
Defensive tackle is a concern, but that is alleviated a great deal if converted lineman Craig Wilson becomes a potent force at defensive tackle. He is huge and athletic; if he can learn his assignments and force double teams, it will allow others to make tackles.
Redshirt senior Ian Thomas is healthy now and could have his best year as an Illini at middle linebacker. Jonathan Brown received valuable experience at WILL linebacker last year and has natural instincts for the position.
Redshirt freshman Houston Bates impressed as a backup for Bates in the spring. Brandon Denmark backs Thomas. He is still learning, but he is tall and athletic. Freshmen Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper will be groomed as backups and may see time on special teams.
The SAM linebacker is in a state of flux right now after likely starter Ashante Williams was suspended. Backup Earnest Thomas has potential but is a redshirt freshman with no experience. Look for the Illini to mix and match several cornerbacks and safeties at the position, along with freshman Zeph Grimes. In most games, the SAM is really a nickel back, so secondary depth will determine who plays where.
Cornerbacks Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green are ready for breakout years. Green is the team's fastest player according to those close to the program. Jack Ramsey and Miami Thomas are experienced backups and improved during the spring. Freshmen Valdon Cooper and Eaton Spence are talented but may be able to save a year of eligibility.
Trulon Henry and Supo Sanni are penciled in as starters at safety. Henry might be moved to SAM at least part of the time to begin the season. If so, the Illini need Sanni, who redshirted last year after Achilles surgery, to be the player they believe he can be. Pat Nixon-Youman and Steve Hull are experienced safety backups, and freshman Nick North will get his chances at Camp Rantoul.
Punter is perhaps the biggest concern. Many hope freshman Justin DuVernois will take over there, but he will need to prove worthy by punting consistently against a strong college rush in fall practices.
If he can't do the job, senior Matt Eller or redshirt freshman Brad Janitz are possibilities. Receiver Ryan Lankford can also be used as a triple threat in punt formations. Long Snapper Zak Pedersen returns.
Can the Illini defense succeed against strong opponents without superstars in their midst? Can passion and teamwork save the day? We will begin to find answers September 3rd against Arkansas State.