Phair to put his stamp on Illini defense

Elevated to full control of defense, Mike Phair will give Illini defense a new look

CHAMPAIGN - This is the story according to Bill Cubit. The Illinois head coach met with co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks on Wednesday to discuss the direction of the Illini defense -- a defense that improved from last among 14 Big Ten teams in both total defense and scoring defense in 2014 to eighth in both total defense and scoring defense in 2015.

After taking over for dismissed head coach Tim Beckman just a week before the season, Cubit didn't have the time to make all the changes he wanted to make to the Illini program during the season. The defense had prepared a certain way for a certain scheme and a certain style for nine months. With nine months to prepare for next season, Cubit told Banks on Wednesday that he wanted to make some changes.

Cubit told the media he offered to keep Banks, but that the four-year defensive coordinator's role would've changed. Banks, who remained the defensive playcaller last season despite the co- before his title, would give up some power and input to fellow co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair, a former NFL coach who infused the Illini defensive line last season.

Banks -- the last surviving member of Tim Beckman's original staff, despite calls for his job after nearly every season as Illinois defensive coordinator -- didn't agree to the terms. He decided to look elsewhere, Cubit said, likely for a job with more power and a job with more security.

“Mike had some really good ideas and implement some of those," Cubit said. "Sometimes coordinators, I’m probably one of them, you want the full responsibility. I tried to mesh it a little  and (Banks) wasn’t comfortable.

“We talked basically about roles. Tim just felt after the meeting that it’d be better off for him to pursue other opportunities. He just felt more comfortable moving on. It was amicable. It was not an issue. We told him we wanted him back. There was some things I’d like to see. He just felt it was more comfortable. Tim’s a good man. Tim’s a good football coach."

Apparently, Cubit thinks Phair can be a better coach, or at least a better fit for what he wants to do defensively.

Just under a year ago, Phair was coaching All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and a bunch of pros as the assistant defensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under coach Lovie Smith. Phair gambled a bit to join an Illini staff on the hot seat, but to rise in this business, sometimes you have to take risks. Phair's gamble seems to have paid off.

A year after leaving the NFL, Phair is in full control of a Big Ten defense.

“I’m going to be game-planning and doing all that stuff with all the other coaches and the same stuff," Phair said. "I’m just going to be calling it now.”

So what changes does Cubit want?

He wants to see his defense do more of what opposing defenses do to his Illini offense. Defenses took away the run against Illinois last season, forcing receivers to get open quickly against press coverage and quarterback Wes Lunt to make precise throws. Cubit will place a heightened focus on aggression, stopping the run and forcing offenses to adjust to them. 

“You always want it sound," Cubit said. "You want to play to your players’ abilities. I think he’ll do that. You’ll probably see a little bit more man (coverage) and cover-3, putting more guys in the box to stop the run. The other way was a way, there’s just a lot of different ways to get it done.

“We’re getting a lot of man coverage in this league, a lot more (cover) 3. I think his philosophy will really help us prepare for the season. We (Phair and Cubit) are in line with exactly what we want to do philosophy wise. He’ll run the whole thing. I’m not going to step in there. I’m going to let him coach.”

A big criticism of Banks' 4-2-5 defense -- a defense Beckman preferred -- was that it was too reactionary. The defense itself is aligned to stop spreads, something Beckman saw a lot at Toledo and Banks saw a lot at Cincinnati. But the Big Ten (especially the West Division) is won more on the line of scrimmage than on the perimeter, and Illinois never really had the athletes to sit back in coverage and keep up with most of the Big Ten powers.

Phair said his style was developed under Lovie Smith, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and longtime NFL defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

"You always hear me say it: attacking up front and our backers getting downhill," Phair said. "We want to roll one of our safeties down, play some man, play some cover-2, cover-3. It’s not going to necessarily be gimmicky stuff. It’s going to be really technique and fundamentals and guys attacking. I’m really trying to get guys to play fast. And you always hear me say this: taking the ball away and scoring. To me, that’s what defense is. That’s what you have to do.”

Phair also will lead a new-look defensive staff. He and outside linebackers coach Al Seamonson, who may take over some special teams duties, are the only returning defensive staffers. Banks, who coached the defensive backs, and inside linebackers coach Mike Ward were not retained.

Cubit will hire a linebackers coach and defensive backs coach within the next few weeks.

“I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do there," Cubit said. "Just waiting for about a few days when the dust settles, after the bowls.”

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