Illini Defense Still Has High Hopes

It is the question most asked about the latest Illinois football team -- what happened to the defense? Specifically, why is this defensive unit, so acclaimed and with such high expectations, struggling so much early in the season. The reasons are many, including the fact that they have played two of the best offenses in the country. But there are other reasons, and solutions, as well.

Without a doubt, expecations were through the roof after Illinois went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years and returned a number of key players from the team that got there. But coaches, fans, and many others are finding out how valuable some departed players were.

Everyone knew running back Rashard Mendenhall and middle linebacker J. Leman, by far the two MVPs of the team, would be missed. But maybe nobody realized how badly missed would be the four other senior starters on defense -- tackle Chris Norwell, linebacker Antonio Steele and safeties Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell.

The conventional thinking was that all would be fine because the four players replacing those guys -- tackle Josh Brent, linebacker Martez Wilson and safeties Travon Bellamy and Donsay Hardeman -- had much bigger upside. All four were NFL prospects, the four they were replacing were not. They were bigger, faster, more athletic than their predecessors.

Yet, people forgot about how gritty the departed guys were. They forgot about the senior leadership those four players, along with Leman, provided. How tough they were. How physical. How fundamentally sound, never out of position. Such good tacklers. Big hitters. Just good players.

"I'll admit it," coach Ron Zook said. "Those guys were terrific, terrific players, but because we had talent coming in, I probably underestimated how much we would miss them. We really have.

"But our players in there now are good players. They will be fine. We just have to keep coaching them and they have to keep working. That, and we need to add some players to the mix to keep the pressure from building on one or two guys."

With a team so young, there aren't a lot of options. And Zook wants to make sure nobody is giving up on his prospects who are thrust into starting roles already. Wilson is taking a lot of criticism, but he a true sophomore. So is Brent, plus he missed two games this season. Hardeman missed three games and has never played college football; Bellamy is coming off a missed season with shoulder surgery.

"I've seen signs from all of them," Zook said. "But areas in which they haven't played well, they have to get better. We're going to demand that."

Zook also will add some players to the mix, if for no other reason, to alleviate some of the pressure on the heralded guys. Garrett Edwards will be in the mix in the secondary. Freshman Corey Liguet continues to play at tackle. And senior Sam Carson and true freshman Russell Ellington are going to see increased playing time at linebacker.

Ellington, not nearly as highly regarded as some other players, has been one of the surprises of the freshman class.

"He's really coming on," Zook said. "We've got to get him in there some. He's got a chance."

And the Illini still have a chance for a big year. They are 2-2, but already have played, perhaps, the two best teams on the schedule. Two teams, in Missouri and Penn State, that are among the top six teams in America.

"The schedule has been tough," Zook said laughing. "But I think the losses still count. I asked someone the other day if that means we've only lost one game instead of two, since the opponents were so tough. I was told both losses count."

The key is to stop the bleeding.

"To just keep playing," Zook said. "To worry only about today."

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