Justin Staples has found a niche at Bandit. He was tried at all linebacker positions before moving there, and he has also worked at defensive end. Now an upperclassman, he feels confident of his role. Thus, he can help with team leadership as well.
"I'm into my fourth year here. It's time for me to be a leader. I'm not a rookie anymore. We're trying to come together as a defense. We don't have that one vocal leader like Nathan Scheelhaase on the offense, but it is a team effort. I am just trying to do my part."
Starter Michael Buchanan has made a major contribution this season and is among Big 10 leaders in sacks. Staples plays well when spelling Buchanan.
"Me and Mike are gonna be rolling all season. Where he can't go, I'm gonna go, and where I can't go he's gonna go. We're both gonna go until exhaustion. When one's tired, the next one's coming in.
"It's gonna give us a real good situation coming from that Bandit position because we're gonna have a fresh guy in there always, while a tackle might get worn out through the course of a game."
Having a year in the system has helped both players. The Bandit is a hybrid position; it was totally new to both last year.
"Michael's come from the d-end position, so he's really got to understand the drop concepts. I was coming from linebacker, so it was a real big adjustment for me to play in the three-point (stance). That whole year was a learning experience.
"Toward the end, we started to jell. We started to put everything together. We carried that out this spring, and we're a lot better this fall.
Staples registered his first sack against Indiana. He was happy but reluctant to take credit.
"Yeah, it felt great man. It wasn't coming to me, but Whitney (Mercilus) fell off and I was right there to cover up for him."
Mercilus is among the nation's leaders in sacks. Staples can spell him as well as Buchanan. He just likes to play; he doesn't care where.
"Whitney's been working his butt off. He deserves everything he's been getting. He's been leading. I just try to help out wherever I can. I know the defense pretty well, so whenever they need me I'm ready to go in there."
The attitude of the Illinois defense from the beginning of the season has been, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Their stars left early for the pros, so everyone else has embraced the idea of working as a team.
"Exactly. We were talking about one of the teams that had real good defense in the NFL years ago. It was called the 'no-name defense.' We're saying that's gonna be us pretty much.
"One day Steve Hull might come down and get two interceptions. One day Mike might get five sacks. Trulon (Henry) might make good plays, J. (Jonathan) Brown, everybody. So you never know what's gonna happen. We'll always be rolling. You never know who's number is gonna be called, so we all plan to be ready whenever it is."
The key to a great defense is for all 11 players to play their correct roles and then trust each other unconditionally. Having a season under their belts is helping this year.
"Oh yeah. That whole year getting seasoned, cutting down on the silly mistakes we had last year. Guys go back to film from last year. It's a lot better to learn from your own mistakes than from somebody else's."
The Illini defense has dispelled the rumors of ineptitude emanating from so-called "experts" in the preseason. The experts were wrong, but they played a vital role in inspiring a prove-them-wrong attitude.
"They want to look over us, that's fine. We're gonna come out and work and get better every single day. Last year, people didn't expect us to come out and do the things we did. But we made it to the post season and got a bowl win. You never know what will happen. We're gonna work hard every day."
Staples is helping nurture freshman Darrius Caldwell as he learns the complexities of Bandit. He sees a bright future for the Georgian.
"Darrius is gonna be a real good player here. He's gonna be a guy that needs to be seasoned, but that's the same thing that happened to us. He has the benefit of having two guys in front of him that know it. We've taken our extra effort to teach him the things we messed up on last year so he won't have the same mistakes we had."
When upperclassmen teach younger players, and they do the same when they are more experienced, a college team can maintain its winning ways over an extended period.
But the present Illini can also enjoy the fruits of their labors this year. Staples is enjoying the ride.
"It feels great. The defense has been working hard, so it's nice to see that paying off.
The Illini have become bowl eligible for the second year in a row. Staples and his teammates want to complete what they've started this season and then build for the long term.