CHAMPAIGN - It turns out that Tim Banks can coach a little bit.
Most Illini fans have wanted to run the Illinois defensive coordinator out of town the last few years -- somewhat understandable given that the Illini defense allowed 34-plus points per game in back-to-back seasons and finished last in the conference in rushing defense in consecutive seasons.
But two games into the 2015 season, Banks deserves a bit of praise. His once-maligned unit hasn't allowed a touchdown in two games -- the first time Illinois has done so in 27 years -- after shutting out Western Illinois 44-0 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
"You got to give credit to the players, and you have to give credit to the defensive coaches," Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit said. "They're doing a heck of a job."
Banks played the part of whipping boy the past few seasons. In public appearances, he put most of the criticism on himself and rarely blamed the rebuilding Illini's lack of talent or a two-deep that featured far too many freshmen and sophomores.
In 2012, the Illini were caught out of position and more often just beat physically. This season, the Illini look stronger and smarter -- both products of time.
Taylor Barton is the perfect example of what maturation can do for an individual player and an entire defense.
As a freshman, Barton was a punching bag for opponents. He was too easily run by and too easily run over. Last season, he improved enought to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors, and through two games this season, Barton looks like an All-Big Ten candidate. He has three interceptions (the first Illini to intercept three passes in a season since 2011) and 2.5 tackles for loss.
Barton is just one example. You can point to any number of veteran Illini defenders -- 10 of 11 starters are juniors or seniors -- as breakthrough candidates this season, including junior defensive tackles Chunky Clements and Rob Bain, senior defensive end Jihad Ward, junior LEO Dawuane Smoot, junior linebacker T.J. Neal, redshirt sophomore STAR James Crawford and senior safety Clayton Fejedelem.
"We got some experience," Banks said. "We took some lumps early. By no stretch, we're not the '85 Bears right yet. But I think our guys are working hard and they're playing with great confidence right now. We understand that we've done nothing. It's a one-game season every week."
Said senior linebacker Mason Monheim: "You can't trade experience. You can be super-athletic, but the experience is where it's at -- especially at this level. Just recognizing formations, how they want to attack you in that. With the constant reps you get, it just starts to become muscle memory."
Cubit, the offensive coordinator, said he barely involves himself in the defensive game-planning. -- "You got good people out there who are doing what they are paid to do," Cubit said -- and Banks said he is running the same system that he ran under recently-dismissed head coach Tim Beckman, only the team now is "just executing."
But with Beckman (a defensive-minded coach) out of the picture, players say Banks has made some adjustments.
Monheim said Banks made just "minor" changes to the defensive sets that allow the linebackers to play faster and downhill more often. Fejedelem said Banks made "only a few tweaks" with secondary assignments, including drops and responsibilities for cornerbacks.
"There were only a few little tweaks here and there when Coach Banks took over completely with it," Fejedelem said. "Him and Coach Phair talking to each other, I know they collaborated on a few things. Coach Banks and Coach Phair together, so far, has been a pretty lethal weapon."
Banks also added a co-defensive coordinator and new defensive line coach in Mike Phair.
Phair inherited an older, stronger defensive line, but he seems to be getting more out of the front four. Through two games, the Illini have allowed just 2.5 yards per carry.
"Coach Phair is a great coach," said junior defensive tackle Chunky Clements, who had 2.0 tackles for loss on Saturday. "He helps us feel better as a defensive line and is more comfortable with letting us get off the ball, let us play more upfield. Now, as you see, we're more in the backfield. Being in this system with Coach Phair and Banks, it's just a great system. The guys have really bought in."
The improved front four also allows Banks, still the leader of this defense, to get more creative with his coverages.
"(It allows us) to do some different things because you don't feel like you have to pressure and bring six or seven different guys to have an opportunity (to get to the quarterback)," Banks said. "As long as they continue to dig in and play hard and fight for every inch, I think we'll have a chance to be OK."
But Banks knows you're only as loved as last week's score. The Illini defense has beat up some middleweights. It still hasn't proved itself against a team its own size.
Banks' crew will face its biggest challenge when it plays at North Carolina next Saturday. In its two previous nonconference road games at power-five conference opponents, Banks' defense has allowed 45 points (at Arizona State, 2012) and 44 points (at Washington, 2014), respectively.
The Tar Heels have a dual-threat quarterback (Marquise Williams), a stable of talented receivers and a stronger offensive line.
But after two dominant performances, a Tim Banks-led Illini defense has never looked more prepared for the challenge.
"It falls on him when we don't play well," Monheim said of Banks, "but ultimately it really falls on us because we're the ones who are supposed to go out and execute. He puts us in the right positions, and we're supposed to make the plays. We're doing that so far."