Despite a lopsided loss to Michigan last Saturday, there were some positives to take away from some of the young Illinois defenders.
With each repetition, their roles continue to increase. That improvement helps shape the future of the defense.
Sophomore linebackers Julian Jones and Tre Watson both displayed the ability to make tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage, which translates into an impact LB. Freshman defensive tackle Jamal Milan and safety Stanley Green are starting to develop and make game-changing plays in critical situations, either with third-down stops or forcing turnovers.
Here are some plays that this group of four put on display versus the Wolverines.
For example, Green continues to impress and is rarely caught out of position defending both the run and pass as the single-high safety. He makes quick decisions and fills the alley quickly in run support, and one of the best attributes a safety can have is open-field tackling.
Michigan's main objective was to pound the ball directly downhill toward the line of scrimmage with a lot of two-back, two- to three-tight end formations. In the following play, the Wolverines aligned in 22/Tens personnel (2RBs-2TEs-1WR), a run heavy formation. On this play, Green showed his skill set to make secure tackles in space from the third level coming toward the line of scrimmage. With nine men in the box, Illinois out-numbered Michigan's eight blockers, making every gap accounted for with an unblocked defender. MIKE linebacker Hardy Nickerson was the free hitter, leveraged the B-Gap (gap between guard & tackle) and made the initial contact on running back Karan Higdon. But Higdon broke through the grasp of Nickerson, but not Green. The Illini freshman took a good angle toward Higdon and took him to the ground..
Green also recorded a forced fumble in the passing game by dislodging the ball from wide receiver Jehu Chesson. Green's quick reaction off the play-action pass was due to sharp route recognition.
Nose tackle Jamal Milan made some nice stops defending the run with his get-off, pad level and use of hands disengaging from offensive linemen. Milan showed good play strength versus center Mason Cole, an NFL prospect. Milan was able to penetrate the A-Gap (gap between center and guard) against zone blocking. His hand placement enabled him to shed Cole's block working down the line of scrimmage and tackle RB De'Veon Smith for a minimal gain.
With an interior alignment, Milan can push the pocket rushing the quarterback. He showed good push-pull power against right guard Patrick Kugler and heavy hands to disengage from Kugler and prevent QB Wilton Speight from gaining a first down.
Julian Jones continues to make strides defending the run. Michigan executed a power run in the direction of Jones out of 22/Tens personnel. He processed the angle of fullback Henry Poggi and defeated the block at the point of attack with the competitive toughness, tackling RB Jabrill Peppers for no gain.
Another example of Jones attacking Poggi was on an isolation play. He was able to diagnose run, attack Poggi behind the LOS with physical toughness and tackle Smith.
Tre Watson's play strength has improved with the sophomore now showing the ability to finish tackles upon contact -- something he struggled with at times earlier this season. Watson has good athletic ability to sift through traffic and mirror RBs behind the LOS. He tracked Smith and displayed the range necessary working toward the sideline, finishing the tackle.
Finally, Watson showed the agility to function in tight spaces. The Fighting Illini countered the Wolverines 21/Regular personnel (2RBs-1TE-2WRs) with an 8 man box. Watson closed the B-Gap, took advantage of DT Chunky Clements absorbing the double team from the C & G. He showed the foot speed to change direction and move downhill finishing off Smith for a TFL.
There are always victories within the mile, and the signs of improvement continue to show up each week with freshmen and sophomores being inserted into the starting lineups or a part of a positional rotation.
The Illini (2-5, 1-3 Big Ten) will continue to face run first teams for the remainder of the season starting with Minnesota this weekend. The Golden Gophers (5-2, 2-2) will run the ball between the tackles and use a lot of deception in the backfield, so eye discipline for the young Illini defenders. It's just the next test of their progress.
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.