Players, coaches, fans and media bubbled over with excitement as Illinois' first team defense annilated its second string offense throughout the spring. It was thought to be the team's strength and had the potential to be better than last year, when the defense was good enough to help Illinois visit the Rose Bowl.
Yes, replacements were needed for several defensive positions, especially the two safeties and two linebacker spots. But promising replacements appeared ready to impose their will and make people forget the departed seniors.
The theory in the spring was that the fast, athletic and deep defensive line would control the line of scrimmage and create 2nd and 3rd and long situations. From there, a relentless pass rush would cause quarterbacks to hurry throws, allowing speedy but inexperienced safeties time to become ball hawks. If only that dream had become reality.
Unfortunately, spring results could not be duplicated, for a number of reasons. First of all, Illinois' second string offensive line was porous all year and especially in the spring. It made the Illini defensive linemen look like the most dominant group ever seen on campus. Perhaps spring results were skewed by the opposition.
In addition, injuries began to take their toll. Starting defensive tackle Sirod Williams, the strongest squad member, required knee surgery and missed the whole season. His backup Josh Brent missed the first two games with personal problems, diluting depth at the tackle spots and forcing the Illini to use freshman Corey Liuget whether he was ready or not. And Liuget sprained an ankle during the season, slowing his progress.
Dave Lindquist was solid if not spectacular at the other tackle spot. But reserves Daryle Ballew and Reggie Ellis were not ready to contribute. Thus, there was less depth at tackle, tiring out the regulars more than anticipated.
Defensive ends Antonio James and Will Davis were tried at tackle in the spring to add speed on third and long situations, but they were forced to provide depth at other times when their lack of size and strength hurt them.
Defensive end appeared three deep on each side, but the fall reality disproved this notion as well. Will Davis was expected to be the star. Few realized it at the time, but he injured his ankle in a preseason scrimmage and never regained all his quickness and range of motion. He wanted desperately to play and help Illinois win, so he played on it. But he kept tweaking it, keeping him from flashing the speed that had made him a feared pass rusher.
Derek Walker had a decent senior season, tying for the team lead with 6 sacks and returning an interception 34 yards for a touchdown against Missouri. Redshirt junior Doug Pilcher also sustained a preseason injury. He played, but his season wasn't as productive as hoped.
Jerry Brown was expected to be a superstar at defensive end, but he still hasn't realized his untapped potential. He missed part of spring while working on his academics, so he needs technique work. He has excellent speed off the edge. But he had only 4 tackles and half of one tackle for loss on the entire season. D-ends Clay Nurse and James had only 9 and 5 tackles respectively.
Brit Miller performed admirably at middle linebacker, helping fans forget J Leman from the previous year. He led the Big 10 with 132 tackles. He registered 15.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 1 interception, 8 passes broken up, 4 quarterback hurries, and 1 fumble recovery he returned for a 27 yard touchdown. He was also an exceptional leader, but he couldn't do it alone.
Most everyone assumed Martez Wilson would be a superstar at weakside linebacker. After all, he is a freakish athlete with outstanding speed for his exquisite frame. But he had little technique work in high school and is still in learning mode. In addition, it appeared he had a leg injury that slowed him for a few games during the season. He ended up third on the team with 73 tackles, but the perception was that he had failed simply because he didn't meet expectations.
Seniors Rodney Pittman and Sam Carson are good run defenders and did well against running teams. But they couldn't cover in space, so their playing time was limited against spread offenses. Redshirt freshman Ian Thomas started to assert himself at strongside linebacker late in the season, but he played little at the position this year. Freshman Russell Ellington saw some action relieving Wilson, but he was a quarterback in high school and needs more seasoning.
Pittman's spot was filled by a nickel back in passing situations. Sophomore Garrett Edwards played the most there, but he is inexperienced and lacks great speed. Cornerback Dere Hicks was tried there some late in the season. But this position needed an upgrade that wasn't forthcoming.
Sophomore Miami Thomas might have played nickel if healthy, but he required knee surgery. He played the first couple games with a bad shoulder, so perhaps it was a blessing he had to go out. But he is an outstanding cornerback/nickel back who was missed greatly. Miami has a conscious awareness and natural intelligence for defensive back that few possess.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all for the Illini defense this year was the loss of their top three safeties to graduation. Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders took awhile to learn the position, but they were outstanding as seniors. The rest of the defense could play their own positions and trust the safeties to take care of business and back them up.
Without them, opponents found weaknesses they could exploit consistently. Donsay Hardeman transferred in from junior college with glowing credentials, but he didn't have the advantage of spring practice and hurt his knee sufficiently at Camp Rantoul to require arthroscopic knee surgery. After missing the first three games, Donsay started but needed time to learn the position. And then he hurt his neck near the end of the season.
Travon Bellamy was expected to star at safety. But after a year's absence with two shoulder surgeries, he struggled all season. He has speed and a ball-hawking presence, but he had no interceptions and lost his starting berth late in the year. Travon played well as a freshman at nickel, but he couldn't move back there due to a lack of experienced depth at safety.
Nate Bussey and Bo Flowers both saw considerable time at safety. Bussey brings speed and youthful enthusiasm, and Flowers brings maturity and leadership. But neither had the experience and savvy for the position this season.
Opponents found it easy to pass into several zones in Illini coverage using mismatches and deception to confuse the uninitiated. It was easy pickings. Illinois had quality cornerbacks on the field, but the middle was open most of the season. Illinois' linebackers and safeties were exploited.
Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks were outstanding, but even they got burned on occasion. In part, they may have needed to help protect the safeties and nickel back, leaving their areas of the field less protected. But mostly, teams simply threw away from them, figuring there was no need to gamble against their experience.
Freshman Tavon Wilson was a late developer at corner, allowing Hicks to move to nickel. But he was the only other cornerback available. Ashante Williams and Pat Nixon were academic casualties. Thus, lack of depth hurt the Illini as starters had to play most of the way and tired at times.
Season statistics are somewhat confusing. After all, the Illinois offense generated 83.5 yards per game more offense than the defense gave up. The defense gave up 863 less passing yards than the Illini offense generated on the year. And the yards per carry allowed was less than Illinois averaged on running plays.
Timing was everything, as it seemed the Illini gave up big plays at the worst times. Several times they had opponents pinned near their own goal line and allowed them to escape. At other times, 3rd and long situations were converted by opponents. A lack of consistency was a big part of the downfall.
And Coach Ron Zook pointed out a major factor that hurt the defense all year.
"There were 49 scoring drives against us, and 21 of them started in our own territory. That's 42%. I don't care what kind of defensive scheme you're playing, that makes it difficult. That's not an excuse, it's just a fact. That has to do with turnovers, that has to do with special teams, punting, kicking, all those things. Those are things it's our job to get fixed."
Thus overall, Illinois was 9th in the Big 10 in scoring defense, 9th in rushing defense, 10th in turnover margin, 9th in pass defense efficiency, and 8th in red zone defense. They had no one in the top ten for passes broken up or interceptions. Paradoxically, they were second in the conference and 19th in the country in sacks.
Illinois' defensive weaknesses were exposed in the Missouri loss to begin the season. From then on, the chemistry of the unit was altered as concern for weak links made all other defenders doubt their ability to perform. When it became obvious that improvements couldn't solve all the problems, more doubt ensued. A defense must be self-assured, and each player must trust his teammates to do their jobs. When confidence and trust are lost, top performances are impossible.
Everyone wants to assign blame, and there is plenty to go around. But it is difficult to isolate individual players or coaches for blame. Perhaps everyone did a little less than needed to achieve success. Perhaps everyone's expectations were excessive. Perhaps there wasn't enough talent on hand. Perhaps fate played a hand.
Regardless, the perception people will have of the 2008 Illinois defense is that it underachieved. It must now use the pain and frustration of a 5-7 season as motivation to make the across-the-board improvement needed to compete with the top teams in the Big 10.