College offenses are using more spread concepts these days, putting more skill players into pass routes and spreading out the defense. The days of the slow, plodding linebacker are over, replaced by sleek, athletic and speedy defenders.
Linebackers are being used more on pass coverage, so they must possess the quickness and pass coverage skills of defensive backs to be effective. In obvious passing situations, the strongside linebacker is removed for an extra defensive back, and sometimes two linebackers are replaced. So having multiple players at all three positions is less a concern than in the past.
Linebacker coach Dan Disch says the same thing.
"The days of the plugger, the guy who will take on the lead blocks and isolations and power and stuff like that, those days are not as prevalent as they used to be. The more athletic kids you can get who have toughness and smarts at your linebacker positions, the better you will be."
Illinois used to be known for its linebackers, players like the immortal Dick Butkus who overpowered blockers and drove ball carriers backward into the ground. Linebackers like Butkus were essential in his day because opponents relied on their ground game. There's no doubt Butkus would be an All-American today as well, but most linebackers like him are out of place against a spread offense.
Illinois head coach Ron Zook is looking for a different sort to play middle linebacker (MIKE).
"With the offenses we're running, you're seeing a lot of spread stuff, that guy in the middle is not necessarily a true MIKE linebacker. He's got to be able to run and cover."
That is where Martez Wilson comes in. The five-star athlete with the size and speed to dominate was moved to the middle this spring after playing on the weakside last season. Both Disch and Zook say the experiment was a success.
"I thought he had a good spring," Disch said. "He came in ready to go. He had a good offseason and worked hard in the weight room. We thought he did a nice job at the MIKE position. He's learning, he's getting better.
"A guy like Martez gives you a lot of versatility because he will cover, and he can blitz. We'll be in a three linebacker set probably half the time. And the other time we'll be in a nickel where we have two linebackers as opposed to three."
"The kid comes in with unbelieveable expectations of him. Everyone wants him to be a star when he gets here. I think before it's all over, he's gonna fulfill a lot of those expectations. A lot of it is maturity and being in the system awhile. He's ready to have a good year."
"I thought Martez played pretty well. I didn't see any glaring mistakes. He attacked the run and didn't miss any tackles. He's settled into the position. I think he kind of likes being in the middle, I think he likes being able to make the calls. He's accepted that responsibility and done pretty well with it.
"I think that's probably where he's gonna end up. He can hold his own in there with any of the linemen, he can run obviously and make plays. And you don't have to worry about matchups with pass coverage.
"With the offenses we're running, you're seeing a lot of spread stuff, that guy in the middle is not necessarily a true MIKE linebacker. He's got to be able to run and cover.
"He's not the only one who's trying the MIKE, but he's such an athletic guy. I saw him make some plays, and that's what you like about a big guy who can run. He's actually a lot more physical than people give him credit for. They won't bounce him out of there."
Redshirt sophomore Ian Thomas began the spring at MIKE, but he was moved back to strongside (SAM) where he earned the award for most improved defender. Disch liked Thomas' maturation at the position.
"Ian Thomas had a heck of a spring. Of all the guys, he showed the most improvement. He played most of the time at the strongside spot, and he repped sometimes inside with Martez. So if we got into a bind, he knows both positions. He did a nice job for us."
Thomas and Wilson are the most experienced linebackers on the team, although Thomas has seen minimal time up to now. Zook sees both of them contributing this fall.
"We're just mixing and matching, trying to find the right combination. Ian at times does some really good things, and sometimes he'll have a short out there. That's part of experience. We're gonna be ok there, I really feel confident about that. Experience is something you've got to gain, and Martez is the only guy who's played alot."
A freshman backs up Wilson in the middle according to Disch.
"We redshirted Evan Frierson last season, so he didn't get a lot of reps. But he's a big physical kid in the middle. The more he learns the defense and gets comfortable, I think he'll be a contributor. He had a nice spring as well."
Redshirt freshmen Justin Staples and Nate Palmer backed up Thomas at the SAM this spring, and junior college transfer Aaron Gress rotated through the position as well. All three are athletic but lack experience.
"Justin Staples had a nice spring at the strongside," Disch states. "Nobody really separated themselves among the freshmen. So at this point, it's who gets comfortable the fastest, who knows what to do the most. That's the most important thing."
Russell Ellington and Nate Bussey were the top two weakside (WILL) linebackers this spring, although Gress began to assert himself late in spring practices. Disch is generally pleased with their progress.
"Russell Ellington played the most of that bunch last year. Right now, he's battling for the starting weakside linebacker spot. And then Nate Bussey, who we moved over from safety, battled him. I thought Russ had a good spring. It's the same with all young guys. It's just a comfort level, knowing what to do all the time so they can play fast. But he did good."
Zook tries to find playing time for athletes who work hard and have a burning desire to help the team win. He is high on the speedy Bussey, who was a winter conditioning champion.
"I'm really pleased with Nate. He just wants to play. He'll do whatever is asked of him. He's up to 223-224, he can run and loves to play the game. He's a tough guy, and to me he's fitting in there pretty good."
One freshman will join the group this fall, 6'-0", 215 pound Eric Watts out of Wolfson High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Watts will likely work out at the WILL where he can use his speed and aggressiveness. Watts will also compete for a spot on special teams.
Illinois is getting faster and more athletic at the linebacker spots. The main problem for this fall is the youth and inexperience of the group. They were all given many reps under live contact this spring, and that will continue at Camp Rantoul. Disch will wait to make a final decision on a depth chart until later in the fall.
"Spring is fun and valuable because you've got young guys that just need reps for you to evaluate as a coach but also for them to get out there and get some experience in the system. As a group, they got better. We can't give them what they need most, which is experience. Collectively, they are athletic and they work hard."