Notes: Taking on Tackling & More

CHAMPAIGN – There certainly wasn't a single culprit for the Illinois defensive breakdown against Arizona State.

Struggles to that degree are usually never simply explained. The Illini had issues with communication and play-calling and keying in on proper reads.

While those problems were costly and by now well documented, perhaps the most disheartening detrimental factor was poor tackling.

For a senior laden group, the fundamental element of the game should have been the last thing the coaches had to worry about.

Instead, according the coach Tim Beckman the Sun Devils piled up 228 yards after missed tackles in the game.

"We didn't come out and play like we were supposed to play," linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "We had guys lacking, myself included. I didn't give all the effort I could have. It's just minor things we've got to work on."

Those minor things vary depending on who is asked. Defensive end Michael Buchanan said: "A lot of the times I think some of the issues with the tackles was everybody wasn't getting to the ball."

That speaks to a lack of effort, which echoes Brown's statement. But coordinator Tim Banks, although proud of his players from holding themselves accountable, wasn't unhappy with how hard his guys played.

"I'm a defensive guy, so I'm going to always say we could run to the ball harder," he said. "I don't know that I could say our effort was lacking and I can say that's the reason why; I don't know if that's the case. I do commend (Buchanan) for saying that because that's the thing that we talk about the most."

Instead, Banks attributed the struggles to a lack of using basic, time-tested methods of tackling – eyes up, feet moving, knees bent.

Sounds elementary, but those things weren't happening Saturday. So what has Banks done this week in practice to correct it?

"Preaching fundamentals because it's not anything that you haven't practiced or worked on," he said.

Added Buchanan: "One thing we've been doing in practice is thudding up and making sure we're running our feet. Everybody is getting to the ball. … I feel like we didn't play Illinois defense, and I feel like we have a lot to prove now. We can't wait to get back on the field."

Where was Davis?

The absence of Jon Davis from the stat sheet was not lost in the shuffle of last Saturday's defeat.

The sophomore tight end went from leading the team in rushing in the season opener to not touching the ball altogether against Arizona State.

Co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty contends the Sun Devils didn't do anything in particular to take Davis out of the game.

"It wasn't so much what they did," Beatty said. "They got up early a little bit and it kind of changed how you would want to throw the ball. We had some issues as far as protecting things because they were bring a bunch of blitzes. We felt like we had to establish the run, which we really did."

Tailbacks Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young rushed for a combined 166 yards. Their increased presence, in the form of 22 carries, was by design because quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was sidelined. That limited the number of plays available at Beatty's disposal.

"We wanted to make sure our tailbacks were featured a little bit more than we did the week before," he said. "That was kind of an adjustment we made to try to simplify things. Like I said, we ran the ball effectively, we've just got to be able to throw the ball, too."

Lauded all offseason for his versatility, Davis rushed for 54 yards against Western Michigan. He still has yet to catch a pass this season despite being able to play both tight end and receiver.

"With that being said I need to make sure he touches the ball," Beatty said. "He's too good a player not to. For him to not get any touches, I take responsibility for that."

Strictly speaking

The preseason buzz surrounding Illinois often included the notion of cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green potentially dabbling on the offensive side of things.

Two games into the season, however, neither have entered an offensive huddle, and it doesn't appear likely in the future.

"Right now we're just focusing on keeping us on defense, doing the things we need to do, especially after last week's game," Green said.

Hawthorne echoed: "I'm actually not even worried about that right now. I'm just focusing on defense."

Hawthorne was a highly regarded wide receiver in high school and Green is said to be one of the fastest players on the team. Given the lack of depth of wideout, the idea to use the two senior defenders is enticing. But Hawthorne, thought to be the most likely candidate to pull double duty, has struggled with a nagging foot injury.

"It's life. Everybody gets hurt," he said. "It's the game of football. You're not going to always be healthy. You just have to go on about it."

Green says he's still open to the idea of helping out if needed.

"I mean it really didn't matter to me," he said. "It would have been nice to play a little, but if the coach tells me to play center, I'll play center. I'm just trying to be the best team player I can be. I'll play wherever we need help at."

Learning by doing

Knowing depth at linebacker was an issue, Beckman and Banks planned early to tackle the issue head on.

That meant throwing true freshman Mason Monheim on the field. And not just for a few snaps – for entire series at a time. Monheim, a native of Orrville, Ohio, has 4.5 takedowns for the year and is steadily gaining the staff's trust.

"Mason's done a nice job," Banks said. "He really has. He's had some bumps like most freshmen will, but I'm not disappointed in him. We think he has a chance to be a fine player. As he continues to grow and learn and get more snaps under his belt the sky is limit."


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