Coach Ron Zook begins his second full year as head coach as he prepares his Illini football team for spring practice. With one exception, the coaching staff remains intact, and continuity is important in building a winning team. The one change is the replacement of defensive coordinator Mike Mallory with Vince Okruch.
The veteran Okruch has much experience as a defensive coordinator, and his defensive philosophy appears to mesh well with Coach Zook's needs. He has also distinguished himself in the past with the recruitment of some dominant players to schools like Northwestern and Colorado. Since the Illini struggled mightily on defense last fall, Okruch has his work cut out for him.
In truth, the Illini have had one of the lowest rated defenses in the country the last few years, and Illini fans have come to expect the worst. Spring practice will likely not answer all the questions that must be answered. After all, there are some holes that may eventually be manned by incoming rookies. But Zook, Okrush, and the other defensive assistants will be working feverishly this spring to turn weaknesses into strengths.
The defensive line is still not the caliber needed, but some improvement is likely. Chris Norwell returns for his junior year, and his size and quickness is an asset at one tackle. The Illini need him to dominate if possible, and his previous experience will be a big asset for him. The other tackle position has several prospects, but none of them have as yet proved worthy of a starting nod.
Tremayne Walker is a promising freshman who got some playing time last fall. However, like Tim Brasic, Walker must also sit the first week of practice due to academic problems. He is a tough, aggressive, feisty player who some feel can eventually play a spot that requires taking on one or two blockers and neutralizing them. But it remains to be seen whether he can earn a starting spot after beginning spring camp in the coach's doghouse.
Walkons Josh Norris, Dave Lindquist, and Michael Ware will also compete at tackle. Norris is likely the strongest player on the team despite his modest height, and one can imagine his fantastic leg strength would serve him well on the interior of the defense. Josh has played enough to letter in the past, so he will have the benefit of experience. Lindquist also got some playing time last fall as a redshirt freshman. He and Ware, a transfer from Wheaton College who gave offensive linemen difficulties last fall practice, will also be worth watching. Freshman Immanuel Chu may still need more time to gain strength and experience, but he is in the mix as well.
Defensive end returns both starters from last fall, but more improvement is needed. Derek Walker and Xavier Fulton both pass the eyeball test, and it is hoped the experience gained last fall will help them. But Fulton is recovering from a fall injury and also must sit the first week due to academics. This gives young players like Arthur Boyd, Sirod Williams, Doug Pilcher, and Sam Porter a chance to earn playing time, although Porter must also sit the first week. Williams shows much potential and earned a letter as a raw freshman. Finding a speed rusher will be a big goal of the spring. Failing that, one or more of the talented fall enrollees may need to develop quickly.
Linebacker is difficult to evaluate. Certainly, much improvement is needed. Part of the problem is that some of the candidates do not fit all the requirements needed for Coach Zook's defensive style. Zook wants speed at all positions, but he also needs size and strength for two of those positions. Fitting current players to the system will be a big goal of spring practice.
Junior college transfer Antonio Steele will get every opportunity to earn a starting spot at weakside linebacker. Steele is a safety who has bulked up to play linebacker, and he has excellent speed for the position. Zook needs his weakside linebacker to go sideline to sideline to make plays, and speed is essential. Anthony Thornhill returns as a two-year letterman, but he will need significant improvement to beat out Steele.
Upcoming sophomore middle linebacker Brit Miller started the last several games as a raw freshman last fall, and he appears to have the speed and the basic instincts needed to play the position properly. But he will undoubtedly benefit from frequent repetitions this spring. Remond Willis began last fall as a starter, and he has outstanding speed for the position. But it is uncertain at this time whether he will play better in the middle or on the outside. Fans visiting practice will be watching eagerly to see if Remond can finally harness his excellent athleticism.
If Willis doesn't play the middle, he will battle J. Leman and Sam Carson for the strongside linebacker. Lining up over the tight end, this linebacker must be able to neutralize the tight end's blocks and cover him tightly on pass coverage. Leman is the most experienced, and he will probably begin the spring as the starter. Carson may be better suited at middle linebacker, and it is hoped spring practice will help determine his best position. Linebacker has usually been a strength at Illinois, but upgrades are needed to return the position to prominence.
Defensive back at Illinois will be in a state of flux this spring. Burned repeatedly last fall, none of the four returning starters is guaranteed a starting spot. Fortunately, Coach Zook and staff emphasized defensive back in recruiting, so help is on the way. And some of that help is already on campus ready to impress this spring.
Junior college transfer Justin Sanders arrived this semester from Mississippi, and he sounds like the kind of fast, hard-hitting leader the Illini need at strong safety. He is known for his strong run defense and is a sure tackler, something needed desperately. Justin will get every opportunity to earn a starting spot even though he will be competing with returning starter Justin Harrison. Harrison is one of the Illini's best defenders, so he will have every chance to help.
Right now, it appears Kevin Mitchell will have first crack at free safety. Kevin was a starter last year, so it is hoped he can use that experience to have a quality spring and improved play come fall. Cornerback Charles Bailey is probably more suited to safety, so word is he may get the chance to compete with Mitchell. Two promising freshmen who won't arrive until fall, Garrett Edwards and Travon Bellamy, will also likely be given the chance to earn playing time this fall.
Cornerback probably needs the most improvement on the team, so spring practice will be essential in developing talent and depth at these two spots. Alan Ball returns as a starter, and he began to show the qualities needed for the position as last fall's season evolved. If he can utilize his experience and his hurdler speed to best effect, he can be a good one. If Bailey moves to safety, Sharriff Abdullah may be the only other experienced player returning at cornerback. Sharriff is quick and feisty, but his lack of height hurts him against tall receivers.
One new player who entered the UI second semester straight from prep school is Dere Hicks, and it will be fun to see how quickly Dere can learn the position. Hicks is one of the fastest players on the team, and he is also said to have flexible hips that enable him to move laterally with quickness. If he can learn the defense quickly and play with the confidence necessary to allow his athleticism to shine, he might just become a starter before spring ball ends.
Frankly, there is too little depth at defensive back, so assistant coach Curt Mallory has his work cut out for him in developing quality depth this spring. He may need to wait until fall when some excellent high schoolers enroll and begin to compete. Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt and Antonio Gully may all get significant playing time this fall. Bellamy may also get a chance at cornerback, especially if others fill Illini needs at safety.
The punt and kick game will also have some uncertainties this spring. Jason Reda is returning for his third year as a placekicker, and he has a strong leg. But he will need the spring to prove he has developed the consistency necessary to hit important field goals under pressure. Midterm enrollee Kyle Yelton is first in line to replace the graduated Steve Weatherford as punter, but he will need time to learn the nuances of the swirling winds in Memorial Stadium. Supposedly, Zook will be bringing in one or two walkons to provide competition, but it remains to be seen whether the kicking game will develop sufficiently for Illini needs.
The Illini will be a little short-handed this spring, but this will give more chances for current players to get repetitions and impress the coaches. If improvement can be demonstrated now, optimism will reign as the many fine freshmen enrolling this fall are certain to provide more depth and athleticism. But the last thing the Illini need is a spring practice period frought with injuries and poor play. Fans are frustrated by the recent failures on the field, so they want desperately to be shown some good football this spring to help them look forward to the fall season.
It will be an intriguing four weeks. We encourage everyone to visit practice whenever possible, and mark your calendars for the final spring scrimmage game at 1:00pm Saturday, April 22. Coach Zook and his dynamic staff will get the job done. The only question is how long it will take to produce a winner.
Spring Football Preview: The Defense
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