Beckman Expects Defense to Be 'No. 1'

CHAMPAIGN – Coach Tim Beckman isn't shy when sharing his expectations for his defense in 2012.

"I challenge them to be No. 1," he said earlier this week. "They did an outstanding job last year, but that's in the past."

The lofty standard is easily explained. Illinois finished second in the Big Ten in total defense last season and returns seven starters. That returning group has a collection of 108 starts to its credit.

Returning Starter Career Starts
DT Akeem Spence 26
DE Michael Buchanan 20
DB Terry Hawthorne 17
DB Steve Hull 12
DT Glenn Foster 11
LB Jonathan Brown 11
DB Supo Sanni 11

Beckman says prior experiences are important, but he's pushing his players to get better – to be better than last year's stellar effort.

"Of course they're ahead of the game, but there's never comfort level in the game of football in my opinion," he said. "If you ever have that comfort level that's when problems arise, so we're always trying to make ourselves and make this football team better."

Sure, there has been turnover on the staff, but first-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks has attempted to keep his defensive outlook and methods as close to last year as possible. In short – if it isn't broke, don't break it.

"It's not so much as different as it is (new) terminology," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. "A lot of the techniques and the patterns and the things we're doing are similar. Just learning the terminology and getting that communicating is the biggest thing."

Gilmore has been an asset during the transition. A holdover from the Ron Zook regime, Gilmore spent much of his time in spring practice helping players better understand what Banks and the rest of the new staff were implementing. And the new coaches were able to use his knowledge of the players to better prepare for practice.

"I was able to help (the staff) understand who could do what and what people were good at, what buttons to push and that sort of thing and how to better coach the guys," he said.

When evaluating last year and what he had returning, Banks had to like the hand he'd been dealt. After all, the Illini ranked first in the conference (third nationally) in pass defense and second against the run.

With the positives firmly in mind, like Beckman, Banks still saw room for improvement, especially when looking at the turnover margin. Illinois ranked 95th nationally a year ago in the all-important category, something he began preaching about early in his tenure.

"I think what coach Banks is really trying to harp on with us now is getting turnovers," said senior defensive end Michael Buchanan. "That's one thing that we weren't efficient at last year. Coach calls it feeding the monster. We want to keep feeding the monster, giving our offense a chance to score."

Senior LB Jonathan Brown was listed on preseason award lists for: Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, Lott Trophy, Nagurski, fourth-team All-American & first-team All-Big Ten - U.S. Presswire

Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown were named to a slew of preseason award watch lists. Add in defensive tackles Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster and an experienced secondary and the plan clearly takes shape. Nearing the end of the third week of fall practice, the unit is beginning to hit full stride.

"At this point it's time to rock and roll man," Gilmore said. "… I mean the pieces are in place. We've just got to come together and understand what we're doing as a unit with the system. I think it can be a lot similar to (last year), as far as accomplishing the things we did."

And while the offense also returns seven starters, Beckman is making it known which side of the ball will lead the charge in 2012.

"We're only going to be as good as (our defense is) in the future," he said. "That's the challenge to them."

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