The Illinois football team ranks 6th in the nation in sacks, and a big reason is the talents of defensive end Whitney Mercilus and Bandit Michael Buchanan. Mercilus is ranked 5th individually with 5.5 sacks, while Buchanan is 10th with 4.5 sacks. Buchanan is encouraged by the early success but knows much of the season remains.
"It feels good to get some notoriety, gain more respect around the country. That's just one of the things that keeps influencing us to work harder."
The Illini defensive line was ranked last in the Big 10 in preseason. Many assumed it would be weaker without two established upperclassmen, but Buchanan says their legacy is paying off now.
"Both Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse were obviously big pieces of our defense. We learned a lot from those guys, working next to Corey and working pass rush all the time with Clay. We have guys in place to step up, like Akeem Spence, Whitney Mercilus and myself. We've all played a lot."
The entire defense has benefitted from working with the same coaches and schemes a second year.
"I know everybody feels a lot more comfortable. Last year, we were just learning how to run the defense. Now guys have been in it for a year. It's more polishing things up, learning individual techniques instead of trying to learn the plays. That's a major part of our success this year."
Bandit is a complex position requiring expertise not only along the line of scrimmage but in pass coverage as well. Buchanan's personal development is enhanced with more experience at the position.
"I feel a lot more comfortable in the position. I feel really comfortable with everything they ask me to do. Giving checks to the line, dropping in coverage when I'm asked to. That's one of the reasons I have been playing better than I was."
Other than sacks, much responsibility of the end and Bandit along the d-line is to help others make plays.
"It's me and Whitney's job to contain the football, force the ball back to our linebackers and safeties, the guys that are running to the ball. Let them make the plays."
Now up to 240 pounds and still growing, Buchanan credits his off season work for much of his present success.
"I had a great summer actually, it was very productive. I put on some weight, and I feel like I got faster. I definitely got stronger because Coach Lou (Hernandez, Strenth and Conditioning Coach) and the team had one of the best summers we've had since I've been here. My teammates got a lot stronger, and personally I got stronger."
Buchanan also benefits from fellow junior backup Justin Staples, who can provide breathers for him during games. It's a good one-two punch.
"I have confidence in Justin. He started some games last year. I'm confident that, whenever I need a blow or need to take a couple plays off, he'll come in and do a job and produce. I feel like that gives us an advantage."
Bandit now has as much depth as any position on the team. Sophomore Brandon Denmark has moved back there after a trial at MIKE linebacker. He played some at the position last year. And Darrius Caldwell is a promising freshman according to Buchanan.
"I think he'll come along. In the next couple years, he'll be a really good Bandit for this team. He just needs some work. But physically, he's almost as big as we are. He's put on the weight better than we have, so I think he'll be real good in a couple of years."
As well as Buchanan has played, outside linebacker coach Ron West says he still has plenty of room for improvement. If he continues to develop, he could be tremendous next season.
"He's getting better, still working at it. He's helping us, making some key plays in some key situations. He hasn't played his best ball game yet."