USA Today // Mike Granse

Young: Illini defense fills in the gaps

Illini defense displays encouraging signs of improvement in Week 1 win over Kent State, Illini Inquirer football analyst says

The first game of the season always presents the unknown. Coaches and players alike have a lot of nervous energy, which usually causes mistakes.

Before Saturday, the Illini hadn't played a game in eight-plus months (a loss to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl) -- and a weather postponement delayed the Illini taking the field by an additional 17 hours. Like most teams in their first game, the Illini made some mistakes.

For example, there were eight penalties last Saturday in the form of sideline crowding on a punt return and illegal formations on offense from the receiver or tackle not being up on the line of scrimmage. There also was miscommunication defensively that led to some blown coverages in the secondary. Also, missed tackles are a common occurence in the first game because teams don't normally tackle their own teammates to the ground during practice, in an effort to prevent injuries.

While the Illini made some predictable mistakes, they also displayed some vast improvement -- especially in defending the run.

Gap integrity

The Illini's defensive success will depend on how well they defend the run. Every opponent this year will try to come out and establish the running game versus Illinois, because last season the Illini finished last in the Big Ten in rush defense (239.2 rushing yards allowed per game).

New co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair preaches stop the run first with "gap integrity" -- which means the four defensive linemen and three linebackers are assigned one gap. The front seven should not vacate their gap until the ball crosses the line of scrimmage.

By alignment, the defensive linemen can line up directly in their gaps and once the ball moves, penetrate up the field. Linebackers are four yards back and still line up directly over or near their respective gap. One-gap fronts are designed for players to play fast toward the line of scrimmage.

But if one defender is out of their gap, the running back will see it and that's when the explosive or long runs happen. At times in 2014, the Illinois defense  played out of position. Two defenders would end up in one gap, which led to multiple 100-yard rushers against the Illini.

Play #1

In the first quarter, there where two TFLs that Phair couldn't have drawn up any better to set the tone for the defense. The Illini defense took control from the opening snap and it started with a tackle for loss by senior linebacker and Butkus Award candidate Mason Monheim.

At their own 19-yard line, Kent State's offense took the field in 11/Ace Personnel (1RB-1TE-3WR). But the Golden Flashes lined up with tight end Brice Fackler out in the slot to remove Illini LB T.J. Neal from the tackle box, in an effort gain a running advantage.

KSU hoped for a 5-on-5 matchup with their five offensive linemen versus the four Illinois defensive linemen and WLB Monheim in the box. But the weak safety Clayton Fejedelem walked down close to the box to give the numbers advantage (6-on-5) back to the Illini. Phair made "penetration" a point of emphasis during spring football and training camp for the front seven. The defensive front was over-shifted to the three-eceiver side.

At the snap of the ball, LEO Dawuane Smoot was left unblocked, but still responsible for the C-Gap (outside the right tackle). Safety Fejedelem played the backside B-Gap between the tackle and guard. Rob Bain lined up at nose tackle and was responsible for the A-Gap between the guard and center. Monheim had the A-Gap to the strength of the offensive formation. Defensive tackle Chunky Clements lined up between the guard and tackle and his assignment was the B-Gap. Jihad Ward is the strongside defensive end and also has the C-Gap outside the left tackle. 

Both Bain and Clements, along with Ward, re-created the line of scrimmage by taking away creases for the Golden Flashes RB Nick Holley to run through. Without a running lane, Monheim was able to sift through traffic and secure one of many TFLs for the Fighting Illini.

Play #2

The second play came on KSU's third drive, and it was even better because redshirt freshman Henry McGrew made the stop from the LEO position.

When the ball snapped, you see the front four get vertical and win the point of attack, building a wall stretching KSU RB Miles Hibbler to run laterally. Running backs are ineffective if their shoulders are pointing toward the sideline.

I spent a lot of time at the line of scrimmage my last three years as the strongside linebacker battling TEs or OL. When your the end man on the line of scrimmage, your job is to keep the ball from bouncing outside and to turn the ball back inside to the defensive pursuit.

McGrew took it one step further by displaying great point strength, good shock extending his arms and shedding the block of RT Brock Macaulay to make another Illini TFL along with SS Taylor Barton.

Do it again

Illinois is off to a solid start, but all three phases have room to improve.

Offensively, eliminate penalties and continue to develop the running game.

Special teams returned the ball well but will need to score points on top of good field position in the coming weeks.

Defensively, continue to stop the run by playing downhill toward the line of scrimmage.

Last week was an encouraging sign because the Illini held the Golden Flashes to 59 yards rushing with a 1.5 yard average per rushing attempt. That's a marked improvement from the first game last year when the defense gave up over 200 yards to Youngstown State, an FCS opponent.

Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com


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