Dan Disch Discusses Linebackers, Safeties

The Fighting Illini football team lost 5 starters off its much-maligned defense from last fall. There are a number of promising young players with the speed and athleticism to contribute, but they lack experience. Co-defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Dan Disch likes the challenge of molding a competent defensive unit.

Illinois coach Dan Disch knows he has his work cut out for him in spring and fall workouts. Right now, he says only 3-4 positions have established leaders.

"We have a lot of competition, which is a good thing. The bad news is that we're a little inexperienced, but the good news is that there is competition everywhere. We're excited about that.

"We're throwing a lot at our guys and installing a lot of stuff. My big concern is coming out and playing with energy, having fun, and learning what to do. We're getting better every day and that's our goal."

Linebacker is getting special attention this spring. Gone are middle linebacker Brit Miller and strongside backer Rodney Pittman. Are the youngsters big enough to handle those positions?

"I don't think size is our problem. The 3 or 4 guys that are repping in there are the same size as we've had the past couple of years. Experience is the only thing I worry about such as doing your job, playing smart, and knowing what to do. We've got good athletes. The defense is pretty athletic. We just have to keep practicing to keep getting them experience."

Coach Disch is asked constantly about Martez Wilson, the tremendous athlete who hasn't yet lived up to fans' expectations. He played his first two years at the weakside linebacker spot but is being tried in the middle this spring.

"He's playing with a little more confidence and playing faster like he knows what he's doing after being around here for a few years. So far, I like him inside.

"We've tried a lot of guys in there, but he's shown some improvement. He's a good edge rusher, but we've led the Big 10 in tackles the past few years with our Mike and that's our best player typically. So we're trying to put the guy with the most experience in there so he can get everybody set up.

"He's going to be a good linebacker at Illinois for us. Expectations were such that people thought he would come in here playing like a junior or senior when he was a freshman. Now he's a junior, and we expect him to play like a junior.

"We're kind of giving him a week to see how he does in the middle. I want to look at the tape and study it. I want to see him, and all of them, play with a little more energy especially early on. We can't wait for something good to happen to get excited. Defense is about 80% emotion, and we have to get them to play that way."

Some people think Martez would be better off at defensive end.

"We had quite a few good players at D-end when he got here, and linebacker was a place we needed athletes and players. Plus, he was a kid who came in here wanting to play linebacker. You add all that, he looks like a linebacker, plays like a linebacker and is a linebacker."

Nate Bussey has been converted from free safety to play weakside linebacker. Disch has hope for Nate, who led the team in tackles at their Oak Park scrimmage and was credited with one sack although he really had two.

"We moved him from safety and thought maybe he could become a WILL linebacker for us. His whole thing is just learning the defense. He's willing and he's got the ability to do it. For him, it's going to take some time. It's a transition.

"I've been pleased with his attitude and his effort. So I think he'll help us. He's a big safety and a smaller WILL, but he's not much different than Antonio Steele, who played that position for us a few years ago, as far as stature at that position. Size doesn't bother me with him. It's learning what to do.

"He played quarterback in high school, then he played safety, and now he's at linebacker. It's just a transition for him. In the fall, I hope he's in the 2-deep. I anticipate him being there. He's very athletic and can run. It's just different, very, very different. It's going to take some time."

There is also concern about the safety spots. With no experience there last fall, the Illini were burned repeatedly in the secondary. Present starters Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards now have the experience to shore up those spots, but youngsters Supo Sanni and Ashante Williams are of more interest to fans and media.

"They both have good speed, athleticism, and range, but a lot of these guys lack experience. The two guys ahead of them have been around longer and know what to do. Those two guys are very, very athletic and are going to be really good players one day.

"You look at the good college football teams. It doesn't matter how talented they are, it's the ones that come together and have some older guys that know what to do and have a chance to be good. We're plenty good enough, but we've got to play well.

"I think everybody is pushing everybody. I love the competition. I think that's really good for us because it's something we haven't had around here enough."

Donsay Hardeman began to dominate from a safety spot last fall before a neck injury requiring surgery endangered his career. How is he progressing?

"Hopefully, he'll be back and he'll add something to it too. You look at the corner spot, and we've got some good young guys. You look at the safety spot, and we've got some good young players. If I'm sitting here, I've got to work harder and watch more film."

Safety Travon Bellamy has been moved back to his more familiar cornerback spot. Will he stay there?

"Well, we're looking at him at corner. We think maybe he's a more natural corner for us. We lost a great corner (Vontae Davis), so we just thought he could help us more there. None of this is permanent. We're looking at kids at different places to see where they could help us the most. He's done some really good things out there."

Speaking before the team's trip to Oak Park, Coach Disch spoke on what he hopes to learn from the scrimmage.

"For our guys it's just another scrimmage. We'll scrimmage on Saturdays and Wednesdays throughout the spring. It's another opportunity for our guys to get lined up, get more snaps, get more experience, and face adversity when people score on you or drive down the field. It's another opportunity to gain some experience and build on what we're doing here.

"It's not the end of the world either way, but we'd like to go out and play well. We just want to go out and play hard and we should be fine."

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