Illinois football coaches entered the spring without Whitney Mercilus, the defensive end who left school a year early to become a first-round NFL draft pick. To solve the problem, they moved Justin Staples from Leo, where fellow senior Mike Buchanan shines, to defensive end. He appears to have found a home.
"Everything went great this spring. I moved over to the defensive end spot, so it's a chance to get me and Buchanan on the field at the same time. It's looking really good. We're playing the pass rush really good."
Staples is confident despite comparisons with a superstar. He says he and the rest of the team still follow the example set by Mercilus.
"Whit had a pretty great year last year. It's nice to follow in his footsteps. It kind of sounds funny to say that with a guy who came in with the same class as you. But he really set the example for us last year. Hopefully, I can pick up where he left off.
"Whit was always a really hard worker, but it seemed like going into last year, he picked it up even more. That's what the whole defense has been trying to do this off-season. Everyone is doing extra film study on their own, extra workouts and everything to make sure we can be the best we can be this fall."
The Lakewood, Ohio, native has bounced from trials at all three linebacker positions to the two end spots. Not having a permanent home slowed his development.
"Yeah, they pretty much moved me around a lot, and that pretty much held me back. I was always thrown in where needed. I was whatever I needed to do to help the defense."
Now that he has found a home, Staples playing his best ball.
"Yeah, and that's what you aim for going into your fifth year. You get better year-by-year, so I kind of like it that I'm peaking now."
Actually, defensive end and Leo have a lot in common in the new defensive schemes established by defensive coordinator Tim Banks and the defensive coaches.
"I'm pretty much more the traditional defensive end, while Mike is more like the Leo, which is like the Bandit from last year. But unlike last year, the traditional d-end has a couple plays like the Bandit did last year. We've got a lot of different fronts and looks, so we can really confuse the offense this year."
Staples is quick off the edge and excels in the pass rush. His problem to date has been attacking runs to his area of responsibility despite modest weight. He hopes to get bigger and stronger this summer, with help from Strength & Conditioning Coach Aaron Hillmann and his staff.
"I'm up to about 240 right now. I aim to be about 250 in the fall. Coach Hillmann has done a great job this off-season getting my strength up.
"I would say it's been hard to play the run at my weight, and I always wanted to gain weight to make things easier. But it's not really as hard as you would think it is being 240. At times, you have to take on double teams, so that's where wisdom comes into play."
Wisdom evolves from experience. Staples now understands his role versus the run better, allowing his intelligence to make up for any lack of size.
"I think I've improved the most in the run game, being able to sit down and not go straight upfield like I used to, being so pass-happy. I was trying to play the pass too much. I have to make sure I play the run first because everything goes through that."
Staples is comfortable with his new coaches. He knew head coach Tim Beckman previously, and he's received positive feedback about Banks.
"I've known Coach Beckman for quite some time. He actually recruited me at Ohio State when I was in high school. And he recruited one of my close friends Nate Oliver, who just graduated from Ohio State this last year.
"It's good to actually get coached by him. Halfway through my recruiting process, he left to take the job at Oklahoma State.
"I also have familiarity with Coach Banks. A lot of my close friends played for the University of Cincinnati, so I was able to ask them what type of coach he was. It's really been a good opportunity to play for these guys."
He was also pleased to see defensive line coach Keith Gilmore retained on the new staff.
"That was a real good thing to know. Coach Gilmore and I have developed a relationship ever since he's been here, so it was a good thing. You don't want to see any of the coaches go because you develop close relationships with them. But this is a business, and things happen for a reason. But it was good having Coach Gilmore held over."
Everything seems to be on an upswing for Staples, but he still has one obstacle to overcome. Arrested for DUI during the winter, he must still persevere through one of Beckman's penalties for his mistake.
"It was an unfortunate position I put myself in for my teammates and everybody else. I can't really discuss it right now because the case is still open.
"I'm thinking it's going to be a two-game suspension, but I'm not sure. I'm just going to have to go with what Coach Beckman says. Whenever he gets me out there, I'm going to be raring to go."
He made a mistake, but he has learned from it. Teammate Ashante Williams made a similar mistake last year, and he did everything needed to get back in his coaches' good graces. Williams has been a source of strength for Staples.
"Having Ashante to talk to about the situation is good. This is really a team and a family atmosphere. So having guys you can lean on in times of need is a benefit."
Once that final hurdle is cleared, Staples will be free to show how much he can help the Illini. He's excited about the potential of the defense.
"I expect our defense to pick up right where we left off last year. We finished top five in the nation last year, so that's the benchmark. At worst, I expect us to get back to that."