Defensive Analysis: All Will Be Fine

All around Illini nation, you hear it. The question of concern, panic and angst. Simply, what happened to the defense? Why is this group, expected to be such a big part of a Big Ten contending team, suddenly so pedestrian? Can it be fixed? To which I offer to all concerned a piece of important advice: Relax.

Why? Because, believe it or not, I believe this defense will be very good as the season moves along. There are corrections to make, holes to fill, for sure. Some players have to play better. Coaches have to make some personnel moves.

But all in all, the defense will be closer to what you expected than what you have seen.

"We'll get the defense figured out," Ron Zook said. "I'll see to that. Our staff, and it is a good staff, will see to that."

In truth, and not to make excuses, but this defense has been walloped with pre- and early-season attrition like you can't imagine. Start with the defensive line.

In the mid-summer, it looked like this: Five very good ends -- Will Davis, Derek Walker, Doug Pilcher, Jerry Brown, Antonio James, all between 260 and 270 pounds, all very athletic, all natural pass rushers, all with experience. Five 290-plus pound tackles: David Linquist, Sirod Williams, Josh Brent, DeAngelo McCray, Darryle Ballew.

All 10 players looked the part. All but McRay and Ballew had played in Big Ten games. And this would allow true freshmen like tackles Corey Liguet and Reggie Ellis to take their time and develop and true freshman ends like Whitney Mercillus and others to redshirt.

Then, it began to happen. Whole sale attrition that had jaws dropping all around. McCray transferred out; Williams was lost for the season with a knee injury; Brent has been unavailable for a myriad of reasons; Ballew came back to camp in Rantoul and was not ready to contribute right away. All of a sudden, just like that, Illinois was left with one tackle -- just one tackle! -- David Lindquist, and a former walkon at that.

Illinois coaches were left with no choice but to play some ends inside. They decided Davis, the physically strongest end, and James, the fifth best of the ends, would play in there some. At least while Liguet and Ballew developed.

Coaches had no choice but to move ends. Whether or not Davis, the team's best edge rusher, should have been one of the ones moved has been hotly debated in the Illini nation. But coaches are convinced he best fit the bill and that Pilcher and Walker and Brown can pick up his slack as an outside rusher. And that Davis will still play much of the games at end.

The point is, when Brent returns, and when Liguet and Ballew are more ready to contribute, Davis will slowly ease back outside. Will still play some tackle in certain pass situations, but the line will become more of what you remember.

Meanwhile, the secondary that also looked to be a team strength, had its own attrition. JUCO transfer safety Donsay Hardeman, with superstar potential, injured a knee and will miss the first three games. Miami Thomas, one of three terrific cornerbacks, is gone for the year with an ACL injury. And to add to all of that, Travon Bellamy is really showing the rust of a guy who hasn't played in a year.

That group, too, will get better. Safety Bo Flowers, who seemed totally lost the first game, played much better the second. Nate Bussey, who is very athletic but a little stiff and very much a work in progress, is getting there. Garrett Edwards can help in some situations. And Bellamy, a natural when he gets going, will improve.

Finally, only one of three linebackers -- Brit Miller -- has played well. And he was much better game two than game one.

So will it get better? The signs seem to indicate it will. What signs?

Martez Wilson for one. Game one, he was lost, wandering out of position, so confused it made it look like he wasn't trying hard. Anything but that is true. Now, finally, the game is slowing down for him -- you could see it as the Eastern Illinois game wore on and he finished with nine tackles.

Rodney Pittman, the other linebacker, played a little better game two. But don't be surprised if Russell Ellington and Ian Thomas push him. More than expected.

Finally, the season has had little normalcy so far. Game one was against one of America's best quarterbacks and offenses and, with a mega-young defense, the wrong team with whom to open. Then game two, with the letdown of losing the much-hyped, nationally televised showdown with Missouri, plus the distractions of renovation celebration, they were going to be flat. It was unavoidable.

Now, all of that is over. All the players have played some. Coaches are getting a feel for who can do what best. They have adjusted to not having the injured players.

And the stars already are starting to shine. Walker, Will Davis, Miller and Hicks all ready have made big players. Hicks may be the quietest emerging star on the team. His interception against Eastern Saturday was an NFL type break-on-the-ball type play.

Finally, it has only been two games. Sure, the schedule is daunting. But there is a reason you all thought, before the season, that this was an all-world defense. In fact, we all got so caught up in it, we spent more time picturing sacks and picks that we forgot how young some of those starters are.

The good news is they'll get older. And when they do, and if they continue to play with effort as they have, the defense will be all you want it to be.

For now, though, just one word:


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