Michael Buchanan had a good junior season, good enough to consider leaving early for the NFL. He took a back seat to defensive end Whitney Mercilus last year, so he returned expecting to be the man this fall. He anticipates a good year for the entire Illinois defense in 2012.
"The defense is doing good. A lot of things we're doing now are similar to what we were doing last year. It's pretty much just fine-tuning everything. We're working on technique and making sure everybody is in their spots."
The Homewood-Flossmoor senior has the most experience on the defensive line, so it is up to him to be a leader for the group.
"Definitely. I'm a senior, and I'm a leader of this group. It's my job that, when we have down days, to get the guys going. I always lead by example."
The 6'-5", 240 pounder hoped to gain another 10 pounds of muscle this summer. That may still happen, but he was set back by a broken jaw suffered early in the summer. His goal was to work as diligently as first round draft picks Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus did prior to their breakout seasons.
"Definitely. I feel like Corey Liuget and Whitney kind of started somewhat of a tradition here. Next year is my time. I want to keep the tradition going.
"The last couple years, we definitely learned from those guys. Now we're just trying to learn to do what they did. (Mercilus) went through a complete change with his work ethic and demeanor. I think that's what made him so successful. Obviously, we're just trying to mirror that."
Buchanan admits it took time to adapt to a new coaching staff and new philosophy.
"It was a big adjustment. Obviously, it was a big coaching change, so there's a lot of things you have to adjust to. I feel like a lot of guys have adjusted pretty good, but we still have a lot of work to do. Understanding tempo, understanding what the coaches want from us every day."
The new staff didn't prejudge what role Illini players would have this season. Did everyone have to start over to make a good impression?
"To a certain extent, yes. I think some guys on this team would have proved it, and the coaches respect that. What they said is true, every spot is open. I feel like that's gonna be a great thing for us, having competition all the way up to the first game of the season."
The competitiveness required by the new staff distinguishes it from the previous one.
"I would say this coaching staff is all about winning. Everything we do, they want us to win, off the field and on the field, win in the classroom. Everything we do, he wants us to win.
"Everything we do is designed to help us have a winning mentality, and also being very disciplined in everything we do. So that's probably the biggest difference."
Buchanan also sees changes in practice regimen.
"The makeup of the practices is very different than what they were last year. The tempo is a lot faster now, very quick. We've got to take advantage of all our reps. That's the biggest difference so far."
Experience and maturity on the team gave new defensive coordinator Tim Banks a good start on installing his system.
"The team has been improving a lot. Defensively, I think we're doing a great job learning the defense. Coach Banks has been doing a great job of telling us exactly what he wants from us. I think we've been improving on things even with the change in the defense."
Other than terminology, much of the new defense is similar to what the Illini did before. That reduces the learning curve for the upperclassmen.
"A lot of things we're doing now are similar to what we were doing last year. It's pretty much just fine-tuning everything. We're working on technique and making sure everybody is in their spots."
Buchanan feels especially good about the defensive line.
"We talk every day about being one of the best defensive lines the country. I think anything less than that is a failure. We've got a lot of pieces.
"I think we're going to be deeper than we were last year. That's one of the things we kind of lacked. We've got some young guys that are coming along. I definitely think we have the potential to be one of the best defensive lines in the country."
He played Bandit last year and Leo this year, but they are basically one and the same.
"It's a different name. There's different terminology, and the Leo does some different things drop-wise. But actually I think I'll be standing up and rushing more, so I hope to get the quarterback a little more. But otherwise it's pretty much the same; it's a hybrid defensive end/linebacker."
Buchanan definitely expects great things from the Illinois defense this fall, but he claims the UI offense gave them problems at times this spring.
"Our offense has been improving a lot. Some of the things they do are actually pretty hard to stop. They're trying to get the ball on the edges and use a lot of screens and draws, things an aggressive defensive line like ours hates. There's a lot of running sideline to sideline and reading your keys. I think the offense has been coming along pretty good."
If he can remain healthy, Buchanan might be setting himself up for a special season. He feels the Illini defense can be special as well.