Co-DC Mallory Assesses Strong Defense

The Fighting Illini football team's defense can be among the best in the country if everyone stays healthy. Co-defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory is looking forward to fitting some promising youngsters into a system dominated by experience at nearly every position.

"We're anxious to get started. We've got some new faces, and this is gonna be critical to see where we're at with our first unit and also with our second and third units."

Based on results from the spring, any coordinator would love having a chance to work with this defense. And Mallory is even more enthused after a productive summer.

"Absolutely. We've had a great offseason. We met with Lou (Hernandez, Strength & Conditioning coach) the other day, and we were pleased to hear the progress at every position and the type of offseason they've had."

Starting linebackers have experience and quality. But depth behind Brit Miller, Martez Wilson and Rodney Pittman must be developed. Fortunately, four good-looking freshman are now in the mix, although it may take awhile to find their best positions.

"We'll have a place to start, but we might find out that players fit other positions better."

With Miller and Sam Carson graduating this year, middle linebacker depth must be developed for the future.

"(freshman) Russell Ellington's in the mix right now. Ian Thomas has been in there a little bit, but he's at the SAM linebacker right now. He was in the middle in high school, but he did a nice job at the SAM in the spring. That's what these three weeks is about. He might be the guy, but right now we're gonna start him at SAM."

Mallory is excited about the other rookies as well.

"We're gonna start Justin Staples on the weakside behind Martez (Wilson). We've been pleased with him this offseason and was real encouraged watching him run around and the work he did this offseason. Nate Palmer might be a SAM, and he might be a MIKE too. They're gonna get a bunch of reps."

At the time of this interview, freshman Evan Frierson was awaiting NCAA Clearinghouse approval before joining the competition at fall camp. His clearance is expected any day.

"Frierson has really had a good offseason and has worked hard. I told Coach Disch the other day how big he's gotten (in the upper body). We're anxious to see what he can do because he can run."

The Illini have added 6'-4" freshman Supo Sanni to their safety group, and Mallory wants to keep him there rather than testing him at linebacker.

"We're gonna look at Sanni as a safety. I really liked him at safety watching him in high school. He has great range sideline to sideline, and I like those guys that have long arms and can tackle. He's also had a great offseason."

Junior college transfer Donsay Hardeman is big, fast and aggressive. He has much to learn, but his high school and JC exploits suggest he will help the Illini early and often. He is practicing at safety but may also be tried as a nickel back or anywhere he can help the team.

"We'll start Hardeman off at safety and just soak him with everything. He's gonna get a bunch of reps, and from there we'll see where we're at."

Mallory has the luxury of some outstanding cornerbacks with experience. Vontae Davis, Dere Hicks and Marcus "Miami" Thomas have all proven their worth in battle and will be a strength for the defense. And they are joined by exciting freshmen Ashante Williams, Patrick Nixon and Tavon Wilson.

Despite more experience at cornerback than safety, Mallory still plans to have his safeties call signals for the d-backs. Travon Bellamy, Nate Bussey, Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers will need to accept that responsibilty while gaining experience filling the holes left by senior leaders Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison.

"Obviously, we look for guys to help each other out. But the system that's in place is how we've done it with the secondary. We make the calls with the safeties and go from there."

Perhaps the strongest part of the defense is its line. Defensive line coach Tom Sims and Mallory don't like singling out individuals for praise, and they want their charges to keep pushing to improve. But Mallory is excited about the line's potential.

"Obviously, we feel good about the guys because they've all played. We have a few new faces, so we feel like we can be real strong up front.

"Coach Sims does a great job with the defensive line. You can never have too many of those guys. The offenses we face, they go fast and spread you out, so you've got to have guys you can rotate in there. You never know, an injury happens here and suddenly you get decimated. Knock on wood that doesn't happen."

Barring injury, this Illini defense can be one of the best in its history.

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