A Look at Spring Football: The Illini Defense

The success of the Illini defense will go a long way toward determining Illini football fortunes for the 2004 season. After two weeks of spring practice, some questions are beginning to have answers. But there is a long way to go. <br><br> Illinisports evaluates the defense in this second part of his article on the Illini football team.

The Illini defensive prospects for this fall are hard to evaluate at this time. For one thing, our defensive players lost all confidence in themselves this past season, and many of those same players return this year. For another, we are not blessed with many difference-maker type athletes. But there are reasons to believe the defense will be better this year, at least somewhat. After all, we can only go up.

The biggest single reason for hope is the style of play being taught by new defensive coordinator Mike Mallory. It appears that Mallory is trying to instill enthusiasm and confidence while simplifying the defense. This will allow the players to respond more instinctively without thinking so they can just play aggressively. They might be more predictable than in the past, but they will theoretically be able to develop more consistency. If so, perhaps they can improve their success rate and therefore their confidence.

If this introduction sounds less than exciting, it is because we have a long way to go to be a good defensive team, and there is no value in pretending otherwise. Basically, Mallory is going back to the beginning, teaching basic tackling fundamentals and team play. And he is emphasizing turnovers as a necessary goal for all defensive players to achieve. Illinois has had a poor give away/take away ratio these past two years, and this must reverse for the Illini to reach their goals. At least, everything is being done to coach the players to improve their game. The rest is up to them.

Another problem with evaluating the defense right now is the fact that some top players are not able to practice. Mike O'Brien will be back for his 6th year, and he has the potential to be an outstanding defensive end. He is extremely quick and aggressive, and he is getting stronger despite his lean appearance. But he cannot practice with the team yet as he recovers from knee surgery. Mike appears to be making good progress and has been helping the other players daily in practice, but it won't be until fall until he can don the pads and serve as an example for his teammates. A healthy Mike O'Brien could be a difference maker.

Another injured Illini with potential is Brian Schaefering. Now listed at 280 pounds, Brian is still considered a defensive end even though there has been some talk of moving him to tackle. Perhaps that decision depends in part on whether he can regain all his strength after two shoulder surgeries. Brian has quick feet and has shown much potential when healthy. He can add a great deal to this team if he can get back to full strength. He has been able to participate in some of the spring drills, but he is still being withheld from contact. Brian Schaefering and Mike O'Brien could make our front four much more imposing when both are healthy and playing well.

Without those two, our defensive line will not excite too many Illini fans. Through half of spring practice, Ryan Matha and Mike Maloney are the starting tackles, Scott Moss is at one defensive end despite a hand injury, and Lee Robinson has been sharing the other end with rookie James Stevenson. Matha is now recovered fully from the major knee surgery he had over a year ago. He and Maloney are both listed at 280, and as upperclassmen it is hoped they can use their maturity to improve themselves and the team. But they are workmen rather than stars. And they have not yet shown much of a pass rush.

Competing behind Matha and Maloney are second stringers Brian Truttling and rookie Chris Norwell, followed by first year players Kam Buckner and Adam Wilk. Norwell was moved to defense after being recruited as a tight end. At 6-7, Chris has some quickness and aggressiveness, and he has the potential to develop into an excellent defensive tackle. But he needs to get much stronger and learn all the technique of the position, which will take time. He looks slender at 270, and he will get much stronger by the time he is a senior. It is also true that offensive linemen love to undercut tall defenders, so he will need to learn how to keep his pads low. Still, Norwell might be our fastest defensive tackle, so he will compete for playing time.

Truttling is finally showing some ability at 6'-4", 295, but he has not distinguished himself yet. And Buckner and Wilk still are freshmen and have need for more strength and technique. One possible additional asset this fall might be Charles Myles.

Presently ineligible and unable to practice with the team, Myles is massive at 6'-7", 300 pounds and is said to be doing well scholastically. The younger brother of Xavier basketball forward Anthony Myles, Charles is said to be an outstanding prospect. He will get a chance to contribute right away, but he will have little conditioning and no technique work to build upon. So expect his future to be much better than his present. Freshmen Xavier Fulton and Dan Matuliak will also get a chance to show their talent come fall.

At defensive end, Scott Moss (6'-3", 260) has experience but no real accolades, and Lee Robinson (6'-5", 265) has potential but little experience. Robinson looks the part but is inconsistent at best. James Stevenson is a freshman who was shifted from linebacker this spring. At 6'-3", 240, James is undersized at this time and short on technique. But he was highly rated as a pass rusher in high school, so perhaps he can develop there. He will need to get much stronger to withstand running plays right at him.

Arthur Boyd (6'-3", 265), a converted high school fullback, and Josh Norris (5'-11", 250), a walkon from Springfield Sacred Heart, have also received playing time this spring. The latter will not excite anyone with his physical presence, but he is a battler who hustles. He actually had three sacks in last Saturday's scrimmage. We need the scholarship players to play with his enthusiasm and aggressiveness. Derek Walker and Jeff Sobol will be freshmen defensive ends this fall, but it is presumed they will benefit from a redshirt year. Of course, anything can change come fall.

Linebacker should be one of our strengths, and there is more experience there than anywhere else on the defense. However, there may still be some switching of positions and percentage of playing time between now and fall. So what is described right now may change significantly later.

Matt Sinclair is due for a good year. He is back to his old size and strength at 6'-3" and 240 pounds after losing 20 pounds right before fall practice last year when he almost died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. He played all last season, but he was a shadow of his normal self. It is hoped he can regain his confidence for this season. Matt has also been moved back to the strong-side linebacker spot from the middle. He has shown signs that he can utilize his speed and aggressiveness at that spot. Matt has a natural aura of leadership, and he can be a catalyst for the defense if he is playing his best.

Matt is backed up by freshman J Leman (6'-3", 220) and Cyrus Garrett (6'-3", 230), in that order at this time. Leman is one of our tallest linebackers, and he has some aggressiveness and quickness. J is in need of strength improvement, but he likes to hit. He also loves to get excited with a big play. He could be a crowd favorite if he gets in some good hits. Garrett may be readjusting to linebacker after playing some at defensive end last fall, but he has the size and speed to be a good prospect. Whether he ever reaches that potential remains to be seen, but he should at least help on special teams. Freshman Russ Weil will arrive with much potential this fall, if he is not needed at fullback.

The middle linebacker slot is filled by Mike Gawelek (6'-2", 220). A career second teamer, he may be getting new life with the coaching changes. He has held off challenges by rookie Joe Mele (6'-2", 225) and Antonio Mason (6'-0", 245). Mason has much experience, and some have speculated that he will eventually play weakside linebacker, but right now he is mired in the third team position in the middle. Mele has appeared to make a positive impression on the coaching staff. Sam Carson is a promising rookie who will report this fall.

Josh Tischer is undersized at 6'-0", 215, but he has held down the first string weakside linebacker spot the whole spring. Anthony Thornhill (6'-1", 215) has some speed and hitting ability. He is a freshman who is battling Tischer for the starting spot. Third string is currently held down by walkon Steve Whitehill. A player coaches are eager to work with in the fall is speedster Remond Willis, a rookie from Missouri.

Perhaps the most pleasant improvement in the defense this spring has come from the cornerback position. Kelvin Hayden was moved to cornerback after a year at wide receiver, and he has at times looked like the best defender on the field. Kelvin was originally recruited as a cornerback out of high school, and that is likely his best position for pro consideration. He is fast, aggressive and confident and gives our wide receivers a good battle on every play.

Alan Ball is a freshman who impressed in his first year this past season. He is tall and rangy at 6'-1", 175, with toothpick legs. But those legs can really run, and Ball is quickly learning the nuances of cornerback. He could end up being a real good one.

Backing up Hayden and Ball are Sharriff Abdullah, Taman Jordan and James Cooper. Abdullah is shorter than his listed 5'-8", which is a big drawback. But he is quick and a battler who will not give up easily. Jordan has only practiced sporadically due to minor injuries, but he still plays ahead of Cooper when there. Cooper impresses this writer with his quickness and aggressive attitude, but a lack of experience may be delaying his advancement. Also, he may need to learn more about securing his tackles. When he does these things, he could help. Anthony Brodnax and Jarvis Newsom are incoming freshmen who will be given every opportunity for early playing time.

Our starting safeties are long on potential. Travis Williams will be starting his third year as a fixture at one safety spot, and he continues to improve. Converted running back Morris Virgil has now advanced to the first unit, where his speed and athleticism can be utilized. He is raw, but he has some skills. Backing up these two right now are Kyle Kleckner, Brian Brosnan, and Jamaal Clark. None have distinguished themselves, but all will play at least on special teams.

Kevin Mitchell has the reputation to be a good safety, but he is not allowed to participate in full contact due to a fall surgery. It is thought he can help upgrade the position. And three entering freshmen will also get looks. Justin Harrison, Charles Bailey and Jody Ellis are all said to have ability. Harrison is this writer's guess as the one with the best chance for playing time due to his intense play-making for Bloomington these past two years.

Punting is shared by Steve Weatherford and Matt Minnes. Each is capable of 50 yard bombs, but inconsistency and launch time have plagued both in the past. Whoever wins that competition should provide the Illini with good field position on numerous occasions.

Overall, it is really hard to make promises about the defense due to all the uncertainties. But one thing is certain. The defense cannot be judged by the way they played the last half of last season. By that time, they were unable to muster the confidence necessary to do battle every Saturday. While our personnel may not be much better this year, it is possible to see improvement in this defense just by the increased game speed and confidence they can show as a result of the simplified defense they will use. At least, that is the hope, especially if the offense can give the defense more rest by keeping it off the field.

This writer realizes this report will be met with less than enthusiastic responses by its readers, but he does not wish to give false hope without justification. At the same time, there were some problems last year that may not present themselves this year. So all hope is not lost.

In a desperate effort to find some possible explanation for the complete collapse last season, we turned to the study of Astrology for answers. Before closing off on us, please consider the interesting synchronicity we discovered. We first paid attention to this possibility when it was discovered that rookie offensive linemen James Ryan and Kevin Gage were not only born the same day but had season-ending knee injuries within a day or so of each other during their high school senior seasons.

The following players were all extremely important to the potential of last season's team but were injured or sick for part or all of the 2003 season: Ade Adeyemo, Jon Beutjer, Kelvin Hayden, Lonnie Hurst, Antonio Mason, Brian Schaefering, and Matt Sinclair. The commonality of these players is they are all born under the sign of Leo. If you remember, Hurst and Hayden both injured legs in the same game. It is said that Leos are "all or none". Perhaps these important players all had their "none" seasons this last year and will have "all" seasons this year. Wouldn't that be nice!

Ok, hope springs eternal. But whether we are grasping at straws or basing our conclusions on a firm foundation, it is vital for the health of the entire Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics that our football team have a winning season this year. Let's hope that between now and the fall season, our lineups take shape and we begin to reach our maximum potential.

Go Illini!

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