Camp Rantoul Recap: The Defense

The Illini football team is back in school after finishing the Camp Rantoul portion of their fall practice schedule. Illinisports discusses the players and potential for the season in this article. In the final part of this two part series, Illinisports looks at the Illini defense and special teams heading into the season.

Defensively, the Illini will have a blend of youth and experience. Coach Zook, if he must choose one over the other, prefers players with speed over size. Linebacker is a good example. Starters Remond Willis and Anthony Thornhill and backups Walter Mendenhall, Josh Tischer, and Brian Grzelakowski are undersized as Big 10 linebackers go. But their speed is obvious. Fall scrimmages have shown receivers being covered much closer and runners tackled quicker than in the past, and improved linebacker speed has much to do with that.

J. Leman and his backup Sam Carson at one outside linebacker are built more like typical Big 10 linebackers, but they also have some quickness. We also have three good-looking freshmen in Rodney Pittman, Sam Porter and Brit Miller, and all three bring quickness and athleticism to the table. Illinois removes one linebacker and adds a nickel back against passing teams to improve the speed of our pass defense. So our three freshmen will likely see most of their playing time on special teams.

Defensive line is still a work in progress, but progress IS being made. Coaches Tom Sims and Joe Cullen are both working the linemen hard, but they are exploding off the ball and will likely improve their season sack total over previous years. Granted, sacks have been rare for the Illini in the recent past, but there does appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel, especially if our best players can remain healthy.

Chris Norwell is now a redshirt sophomore, and stardom is possible before he graduates. The 6'-6", 290 pounder is athletic and strong, and he will be increasingly tough for opponents to block. Ryan Matha has transformed his body for his final season, and he is the one who the Illini need to take on double teams to allow our linebackers room to make tackles. Matha is one of the squad's strongest players, and he is fully recovered from the major knee surgery he endured two seasons ago.

Illinois has two defensive ends who look the part in Xavier Fulton and Derek Walker. They are both tall and quick for their size. They are expected to continue their improvement as Fulton is a sophomore and Walker a redshirt freshman. They may struggle at times against dominant run teams, but their pass rush should be a threat to opposing teams.

There is some dropoff between first and second teams in the defensive line, but there is still some potential there. Tackles Josh Norris, Adam Wilk and Charles Myles have had minimal success in the past, but they are stronger and more experienced than last year. The same is true for defensive ends Scott Moss, Arthur Boyd and Jay Ramshaw.

Myles is still overweight at around 320 pounds, but he is possibly in better shape than anytime in his life. It will take him awhile to learn technique (he missed his first year entirely, and injuries prevented him from practicing last spring), but he has had some good moments in fall practice. Norris is an undersized walkon, but he is a battler with an active motor, and it is easy to root for someone like him.

Illini freshmen defensive linemen may get little if any playing time this season, but they are capable of moving up the depth chart as the season progresses. Defensive tackles Tremayne Walker and Immanuel Chu would likely benefit from a redshirt year, but they are both athletic and quick footed. Walker especially has shown the potential to get playing time with continued development. Defensive end Sirod Williams is only around 6'-1" tall, but he is a good looking, broad-shouldered athlete who excels in the pass rush. Doug Pilcher is the kind of big, raw-boned athlete one typically sees playing defensive end at the major college level.

Defensive back may be one of Illinois' team strengths this year, especially if we have no more injuries. The big concern at the moment is whether strong safety Justin Harrison can recover from his hip problem sufficiently to get playing time. He had surgery on the hip in the spring and aggravated the injury this fall. Without him, the Illini are down to three safeties on scholarship for two positions. This is especially true since former safeties Travis Williams (cornerback) and Jody Ellis (receiver) have been moved to other positions.

Senior Morris Virgil mans the free safety spot, and it is believed his year of experience will make him a more consistent performer this year. His speed is excellent for the position, and he is becoming a leader. Kevin Mitchell has shown marked improvement as well at the strong safety position. He is backed up by letterman Kyle Kleckner. At this time, it appears that walkon Brian Brosnan will get the first crack at subbing for Virgil. Obviously, it will be helpful if our starters can stay healthy.

Cornerback is well fortified this year. Junior Alan Ball and sophomore Charles Bailey are both former high school hurdles champions, and they bring much quickness and speed to cornerback. Both could evolve into stars before they graduate. Senior Travis Williams is fully recovered from twin surgeries this past year to become a challenger for playing time. He tried to play hurt last year, so fans will be pleasantly surprised at Travis' improved speed and athleticism. James Cooper and Sharriff Abdullah are capable backups with experience. The senior Cooper is really our 12th starter as he is used frequently as our nickel back.

Illinois has struggled on defense in previous seasons, and we will be using many of the same players this year. But at least those players have had an extra year to learn through experience and gain additional strength and weight. And Coach Zook's special interest and background with defenses makes it likely we will show improvement on defense this year. At the least, Zook will have our defenders attacking aggressively and utilizing our speed as much as possible.

Coach Zook is also our special teams coach, and he brings a wealth of experience to the position. Considering how much some of our previous coaches have emphasized special teams (Lou Tepper called the punt the most important play in football), it is likely that Coach Zook spends even more time working with these units than any other previous Illini coach. He has had at least two separate special teams scrimmages during fall practice, something this writer has never witnessed before. At the least, he will fortify our different special teams with our fastest athletes regardless of their age or other responsibilities.

Illinois has a true threat at punter this year. Steve Weatherford returns for his senior season as one of the top-ranked punters in the country, having recorded a 45 yard average last year. But Steve is much more than just a punter. He is also our kickoff specialist, and he may also be called upon for a variety of fakes out of punt formation. The Illini decathlete is fast and strong, and he will be utilized to the fullest. And in a departure from the past, Steve may be instructed to do some situational corner kicking at times rather than using only pooch kicks to pin opponents back against their own goal line.

Place kicker Jason Reda lettered last year as a true freshman, and he had success despite missing his last field goal in a close loss at Northwestern. Jason was suffering from some leg muscle problems and learning to kick off the ground after using a tee in high school, so he could not always show his strong leg. This year, expect him to try the long field goals as well as the short ones. He has been booming them in practice. If he continues to improve his consistency and ignore those who distrust him from last year, Jason Reda will likely have a fine career at Illinois.

Some teams use their youngest players on special teams while some use their starters. Coach Zook appears willing to use anyone who is fast enough to suit his needs. Thus, there will probably be a number of true freshmen who receive playing time on special teams because speed is their forte. Among them might include Rashard Mendenhall, Will Davis, Greg McClendon, Kyle Hudson, Brit Miller, Mike Nabolotny, Rodney Pittman, Sam Porter, and Sirod Williams.

Illinois will struggle at times. Some fans are hoping for a bowl berth this year, and so is the team. But we will have to assume an underdog role with most of our opponents. Coach Zook can get a team playing at a fever pitch at times, so upsets are a possibility. This is a pleasant prospect when compared with the recent past. Of course, we are a young team that might either get down emotionally after a tough loss or rest on our laurels after a major victory. Consistency may thus be a problem.

But the Illini are in the beginning stages of an upward climb that may ultimately get us back to the level of excellence we all expect and demand of our teams. We encourage fans to support the team and become a true 12th man. Young teams with new coaching staffs need all the positive energy that an enlightened, motivated fandom can provide. A new coaching staff brings new optimism and enthusiasm to the program, so it is up to the fans to bring a new level of support as well. If everyone works together, good things can happen. But coaches, players and fans must unite in their goal of college football excellence for it to become a reality.

The Illini players and coaches are working for a winning season and bowl berth. If the fans also have that goal in mind when attending the games, perhaps we can all make it happen. But even without a winning season this year, the Illini are on their way upward, and they will be exciting to watch one way or the other.

Good things are just around the corner, so patience is a virtue. We hope to see everyone at Memorial Stadium.

Go Illini!!!


Illini Inquirer Top Stories