Football Season Preview: The Defensive Line

The Fighting Illini defense requires a good defensive line to be effective, and there is some optimism the line may be improved this season. Illinisports discusses the prospects for the defensive line in this fifth article on the upcoming football season.

August 21: The Offensive Line
August 22: The Wide Receivers
August 23: Running Backs
August 24: Quarterbacks

August 29: Linebackers
August 30: Defensive Backs
August 30: Special Teams

The Fighting Illini defense was poor last year. There is simply no other way to describe it. And a big part of the problem was a failure to hold the line of attack and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Illini defensive line is still not where the coaches want it to be, but it is definitely improving.

Defensive tackle Chris Norwell again anchors the line, and his two years of experience and physical development make him increasingly capable of playing well. Chris has outstanding size at 6'-6" and 290 pounds, which he combines with good athleticism. If he will play at 100% of his ability on every play, Chris might be in line for postseason honors.

His running mate at tackle throughout fall drills has been senior walkon Josh Norris. Josh is the strongest member of the team despite his 5'-11", 270 pound size, and he has a low center of gravity and strong explosion off the ball. He gives everything he has on every play. It is Josh's job to tie up one and often two blockers to free his linebackers to make tackles. It is a thankless task, but Josh is determined and hard to block.

Josh Norris is no star, but one must admire his determination to fight five years for a chance to compete despite having to defer to each year's scholarship recruits. If there is one position on the team that needs hungry players it is the defensive tackle spot. And Josh is not the only walkon who has earned playing time.

Dave Lindquist is now operating on the second unit, and he is a 6'3", 280 pound walkon out of Highland Park high school. Dave is another one of these hungry players whose determination makes up for any lack of star quality. Now in his third year with the Illini, Dave continues to improve and develop. He may be the first sub at tackle, and he has earned the playing time with quality play.

Sharing second team status at this writing is sophomore Sirod Williams. Standing only 6'-0", Sirod combines aggressiveness and strength in his muscular 270 pound body. Sirod lettered last fall as a freshman defensive end, but his overall talent fits better at tackle. He and Lindquist receive competition from senior Arthur Boyd, redshirt freshman Immanuel Chu and walkon transfer Mike Ware. Ware has gotten some second string reps recently.

These tackles may not induce fear in the hearts of opponents, with the possible exception of Norwell. And they do not always produce a strong pass rush. But they have some ability and can often hold their own. At least, they will battle hard on every play and make opponents earn their successes.

One possible means Coach Zook, defensive coordinator Vince Okruch and line coach Tom Sims have to inject a bigger pass rush in the tackle position is to place defensive ends Xavier Fulton (6'5", 265) and Doug Pilcher (6'5", 260) there. Results of this experiment are not yet in, but one or both may get playing time there. They have a little more speed and ranginess for the position, so it is hoped one or both can be of help at tackle.

Defensive end is a much more exciting position for the Illini this year. There are several candidates for playing time, all of whom have qualities needed to play the position well. There may need to be some mix and match, to get the best run stuffers in the game on running downs and pass rushers on obvious passing downs. But there is no question the two positions will be played at a higher level than the last few seasons.

Sophomore Derek Walker continues to develop. He has built himself into a physical specimen at 6'-4", 270 pounds after starting every game as a redshirt freshman. Derek now has a presence on the field, the result of an increased confidence. He is expected to play well against both the run and pass and is the one player most likely to start every game. If he continues to improve at the same rate, in three years he may be ready to receive a professional opportunity.

Right now, it appears sophomore Will Davis has moved ahead of redshirt freshman Doug Pilcher at the other end, although both will play unless a recent injury holds Davis back. The former tight end Davis is undersized at 6'-3", 235, but he is aggressive and fast for the position. He gives all the linemen headaches when trying to contain his pass rush. Will may not be ideal as a run stopper due to his lack of physical size and strength, but he will at least play in situations that require pressure on the quarterback.

The redshirt freshman Pilcher is still quite young, but he plays directly against outstanding offensive lineman Akim Millington every day in practice and holds his own. He has a bright future. Junior Xavier Fulton is a former starter at end who lost his job in the spring due to knee surgery and has not yet won it back. He may eventually find a more suitable position at tackle as several freshmen have more speed for the position. But Xavier has plenty of experience upon which to draw.

Remond Willis is another strong candidate at end. Moved from linebacker in the spring, the 6'-1", 240 pound Willis is a former running back with excellent speed and a willingness to stick his nose into the action regardless of the size and quality of opposition. He and Davis provide more pass rush from the edge, so they will be used on obvious passing downs especially.

Besides these players and walkon Bryson Whalen, four outstanding freshman prospects provide great hope for the future. Two or more may play this year due to their speed and athleticism. Antonio James is a 6'-5", 265 pound talent out of football factory Massillon, Ohio. Antonio has received some second team reps in recent practices and may get the chance to play this season.

Another fast end is Clay Nurse out of Beltsville, Maryland. He is a physically gifted athlete with a sculpted body and excellent speed who will eventually grow into a much larger player than his present 6'-3", 235 pound frame once he has a year or two in the Illini's strength and conditioning program. Clay has an edge about him. His speed and aggressiveness make him a threat to make tackles for loss. And he is athletic enough to get practice reps on some of the special teams.

Two other freshmen are equally talented, if not more so. St. Louis Vashon's Jerry Brown and Baltimore's Melvin Alaeza have shown outstanding potential in limited opportunities this fall. They may not have advanced up the depth charts out of concern for their ultimate eligibility. At this writing, they are not permitted to practice while awaiting a final ruling on their eligibility from the NCAA Clearinghouse. Coaches are optimistic they will make it, but their chances of getting significant playing time diminish each day a decision is not made.

Brown looks slender at 6'-4", 262 pounds, but he is aggressive and strong and makes plays against even the best offensive linemen. And Alaeze comes to Illinois as one of the top defensive ends in the country. Alaeze combines good size (6'-2", 270) with tremendous speed and acceleration. He places constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and would be a tremendous addition should he gain eligibility and get in the practice time needed to get in top shape and learn technique. Until more is known about their eligibility, we cannot get too excited yet about Brown and Alaeze.

A big point of emphasis this year is on helping defensive linemen learn how to free themselves from the holding by opposing offensive lines. Teams like Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern and others teach holding that is not penalized by officials but stymies many defenders. Rather than complain to the officials who are reluctant to call the holds, it is better to counter the holding with proper technique. Those who watch line play should pay close attention to this struggle. If Illini players get tied up by the holding, they will prove impotent.

Another interesting development this year is an attempt to teach more stunts and blitzes to help improve the pass rush. Illinois' turnover ratio has been one of the worst in the country the last few years, so getting more pressure on the quarterbacks can help force them into poor throws and thus more interceptions. It will take the linemen time to learn all this, but if they do they can improve their success ratio immensely.

We don't want anyone to think the Illini have an accomplished defensive line at this point. It is mostly manned by veterans not recruited by the elite schools and untested youngsters. But it will likely be much better than last year, and the long term future is extremely bright.

Go Illini!!!


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