Mike Ward Discusses Illini Linebackers

The Fighting Illini football team had a strong defense last season, and seven starters return. There are some quality players at the two inside linebacker positions, giving new linebacker coach Mike Ward a great starting point for 2012. Ward is beginning to settle in to his new job. He talks about the transition and his coaching role in part one of a two-part interview.

Mike Ward was one of the first assistants hired by new Illinois football coach Tim Beckman. He is upbeat about the opportunity to coach in the Big 10.

"We haven't settled in yet, but obviously it's exciting. Every day brings a new challenge. And with that challenge comes a bigger reward and benefit.

"There's been great community support; it's been outstanding. My family's been over twice. Every time they've come to town, they've really enjoyed themselves. They've met a lot of nice people."

Ward will be glad when he can get his entire family moved to Champaign-Urbana.

"My oldest, who's a freshman, is gonna come over shortly to finish out the school year. My wife is teaching right now; she's going to finish her contract, finish out the year at her school, and then she'll move over with our youngest. We hope by end of May, early June, we can get this done."

Most football coaches move frequently. Ward has been an exception to that general rule.

"I've been fortunate because I spent 26 years in northwest Ohio, in three different communities. So I moved three times, which is not bad for 26 years."

The former Toledo defensive coordinator joined the staff in December and continues to learn exciting new things about his new school.

"Obviously, how big the school is. How academically enhanced or rich it is, it's unbelievable. The academic programs and the national recognition that we have are second to none.

"That's been the huge, huge draw for us recruiting-wise. We can earmark the serious student-athlete. We can get those kids that want a top-notch education. It's been eye-opening.

"And the support that we get in the state, in the Midwest. There wasn't an airport that I was in during the months of December and January that I didn't run into somebody that was an Illinois grad. So the amount of alumni that really care about the program is second to none."

While the discovery process continues, Illini coaches keep extremely busy with winter conditioning, spring practice preparations and recruiting. Ward and the rest of the staff try to acquaint themselves with current Illini players as much as they are permitted by NCAA rules.

"We're allowed to spend eight hours a week with the kids. We try to get with them as much as we can. Our strength staff is obviously integral, but we try to get down there for as many of the weight workouts as we can. Making sure the guys are there and doing what we ask them to do. The competition segment of the program has been unbelievable.

"Players have been really good so far with attitude and effort. We're just scratching the surface on what we're trying to accomplish."

Ward is optimistic regarding his returning linebackers. He even includes two walkons in the mix who will compete for playing time in the spring.

"We've got some good ballplayers. We've watched a little bit of the film from last year, and we're watching them work out right now. Attitudes have been great; the cupboard is not bare.

"Jonathan Brown has played a lot, Houston Bates has played a lot. And then we've got Ralph Cooper, who's played some, and Henry Dickinson who's played some as true freshmen last year. They're still young, willing and capable. And we have two quality walkons in (Beau) Sullivan and (Alex) Porter, so we feel we've got six pretty good linebackers."

Many college teams are moving away from using a strongside linebacker who's job is to cover the tight end. Ward used to coach all three positions, but like the last couple years, the Illini outside linebacker will be a hybrid.

"We will not be playing with what you call a SAM linebacker. We call it a 'Star,' who is really a combination of the safety/linebacker.

"So Coach (Tim) Banks is going to be working with that, and I'm going to be working with the MIKE and WILL linebackers. But there's going to be times when I'm sure I'm going to have all three, depending upon the packages that we are in.

"By no stretch of the imagination are we writing off the SAM position. The amount of speed that teams can put on the field, and the way they stretch you horizontally and vertically, you have to be able to get your best athletes on the field."

Ward has witnessed first hand the evolution of the battle between offenses and defenses over the years. One side of the ball dominates for awhile, then the other. Defenses have held sway most recently, but he says offenses are now forcing defenses to adapt again.

"The offenses are catching up now. They've added the tempo, multiple speeds and the look-look concept. That's how they are catching up to the defense. They're trying to dictate what you can have on the field and limit the amount of calls that you can actually run by running at a fast pace. The tempo right now, and the variations of tempo, seem to be the great equalizer.

"The bottom line is, you've got to get your best players on the field. You've got to get them into position to make plays week in and week out.

"Every year, your package is gonna change. Every week, your package is going to change a little bit. It depends on who you're playing, who you have healthy to play and who you're expected to stop. It's a challenge, but every week is a new challenge."

Ward talks about his three new linebacker signees and details recruiting in part two of this report.

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