Mallory Oversees Changes In Defense

The Fighting Illini football team boasted an excellent defense last year, and most believe it will be improved in 2008. But there are uncertainties at a few spots as a search is on to replace some outstanding senior leaders. Which means more overtime work for co-coordinators Curt Mallory and Dan Disch.

Probably the biggest concern is the two safety spots, where seniors Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders received most of the playing time.

"That's going to be huge right now," Mallory said. "We lost three guys who played a lot of football for us. Right now, we've got a lot of guys who are in the mix, but we've got a long ways to go.

"Having Travon Bellamy back has really been a plus. Obviously, he played a lot as a freshman. The other three, you've got Bo Flowers in there, Garrett Edwards and Nate Bussey. Those three just have to keep improving."

Mallory, who added another problem to his spring menu when he tore a calf muscle running around at practice Friday, is also concerned with finding leaders in the defensive backfield and securing competent play-calling that was handled so ably in the past by Mitchell.

"I think everybody has to be involved in the signals. We've got corners looking at safeties, and they've got to make eye contact and make sure they're both on the same page. And our veterans are our corners, so they're guys who really have to take some leadership.

"Bo's going to be a good leader for us. I think the other guys have to step it up too. Right now, we've got to get Vontae (Davis) to step up. That's got to be his big key this year, to be a leader for us."

Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks are returning starters at the cornerback spots, and Davis could become an All-American. But depth is a little uncertain there right now. When Marcus "Miami" Thomas sat out some of spring practice to concentrate on academics, junior squadman Antonio Gully and rookie Ashante Williams ran with the second unit.

"This is gonna help him," Mallory says of Williams. "He's gonna be ahead of the game come next summer when we're in Camp Rantoul. I compare it to when Dere Hicks went through this when he came early, and how much it helped him.

"You talk about wanting to play as a freshman, and for him to play early, he's got to take this time to improve. And so far, he's done some pretty good things. He's put together and is a big physical corner. We recruited him as a corner and liked his ability to move and change direction."

The coaching staff is also excited about the two safeties and two corners joining the squad this fall.

"Obviously, Donsay Hardeman is an older kid who was a junior college player. So we look for him to come in and be a guy. And then Supo Sanni's got a lot of ability. So we've got two there (at safety). And then we've got two young guys that we really like in Patrick Nixon and Tavon Wilson, who will both be corners. So we've got four guys to add to the mix."

Linebacker lost two seniors, including All-Star J. Leman, and depth is somewhat limited. But Mallory is unwilling to concede any weakness there.

"All the guys have played, so it's not like guys with no experience. Brit Miller's got to step up in a different role, as a leader and at a new position. And then there's Martez Wilson, who's played alot. He wasn't a starter so now he's the guy. His role's changed, but he's got experience.

"(Rodney) Pittman was a backup last year, but he played plenty. Sam Carson has played in the past, so he's gotta be in the mix. And you have a young man by the name of Ian Thomas who we redshirted this year but who we feel has a good future for us."

Mallory acknowledges the defensive line has talent and depth, but he wants to see some of them become team leaders.

"We've got to get our leadership there. Because obviously we're playing a lot of guys who've played a lot of football around here. It starts up front with those guys. We lose two guys out of the rotation from a year ago in (Chris) Norwell and Mike Ware, but we've got a lot of guys back who played a lot of ball. And we've gotta start with those guys and the way they're working."

Mallory and the rest of the staff will have spring and fall camps to get their young and talented charges ready for the season. There is still time to develop an outstanding defense.

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