Co-defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Dan Disch faced the media after the Spring Game. While he provided some detail, most of his discussion emphasized generalities and a philosophical overview.
With the depth chart divided equally between the two teams at the Spring Game, it was hard to know how well the defense played according to Disch.
"It's hard to tell because you have two groups running around out there. I thought Martez (Wilson) ran around and got after the quarterback a little bit, which was good to see. Both d-lines caused some problems."
While co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory is outstanding at studying and scheming the details of defensive play, Disch looks more at the overall attitude and behavior of his units. In that sense, he was generally pleased with the play of his defense.
"There was some energy, they ran around and competed and had some fun."
Disch saw benefits to mixing up his first, second and third units.
"When everybody's playing, everybody's important. Instead of first D and second D, you're on a team and the other guy's on a team. It's good for confidence, and it's good for attitude. Some of the guys running with the 2's or 3's all spring got to run with the ones, so you can find out what they can do in those situations."
Spring is an excellent time to evaluate players. And as Disch explains, there is no hurry to finalize lineups.
"We don't know who our first defense is yet. We've got a long way to go. We had a couple goals going into the spring of putting guys in the right place and playing with a little bit of an attitude. We're not there yet, but we got closer to reaching those goals I think."
Disch admitted he saw progress through the spring.
"I think we got better. From a coaching standpoint, we found out about a couple kids we wanted to find out about. We found out about some other kids we weren't so sure about. So that's always big.< P>"But our thing is they've got to play every week. You've got to come out and play with an attitude. You can't be flat, you can't be lackadasical or you get beat. We're trying to instill that in them, and I thought we had some progress.
"One of the things that's gonna make us better is that kids are competing every day. When we first got here, that wasn't always the case. Competition can be really valuable I think. You have to compete to play."
Disch bristles when his defense is described as young.
"I hate it when coaches say we're gonna be young. I say it, Coach Zook says it because we are young. But our next goal is to give them a lot of reps and get that youth out of them. I thought we made strides and had some improvement.
"I really like their attitude. Going 5-7 will make you hungry, and that's a good thing. Not the losing, but being hungry is important in this league. You've got to come to play every week."
Complacency after a Rose Bowl season, accompanied by a lack of understanding of the amount of work required to sustain success undoubtedly played a role in 2008. There is was a renewed intensity throughout the entire team in the spring.
"Losing will do that to you. I told people this last year. Fifty of those 85 guys we had last year either went to the Rose Bowl their freshman year or came here last year, the year after the Rose Bowl. So they hadn't gone through some of the turbulence and tough times the other guys had to do to get there.
"So when you do what we did last year, had some disappointments and don't reach expectations, it will make you hungry. Losing will do that to you. So I definitely think there's a little more cohesiveness and a little more hunger. You've got to have that."
Despite what appears to be a few holes in the defense, Disch says Illinois will not make major changes in its defensive philosophy.
"We'll do some tweaking, but we won't make wholesale changes. One of the advantages of being somewhere for a number of years is you've got continuity, and with continuity comes a comfort level with the players.
"Our philosophy is, don't worry so much what the opponent's doing, we've just got to take care of ourselves. When the kids know what they're doing, they're playing fast and hard. To me, that's more important than scheming the opponent. Obviously, we have to study what people are doing and tweak what you're doing. But we'll be very similar to what we've been in the past."
Perhaps the biggest experiment for the defense this spring was placing Martez Wilson at middle linebacker. He quickly gained a comfort level and drew praise from Disch and the other coaches.
"It's comfortable playing in the middle now," Wilson explained after the Spring Game. "I'm not thinking, I'm just being the general of the defense and calling plays the coaches ask me to. I've grown a lot. I know what everyone is supposed to do on defense by watching film and repetition at the Mike."
Former Illini middle linebackers J Leman and Brit Miller have encouraged Wilson to spend time in film study.
"J and Brit talk to me. They tell me to stay in the film room and watch with Coach Disch and just know the position more than anything."
Wilson is optimistic the Illini football team, both offense and defense, will rise to the occasion this fall.
"I think the offense should put up a lot of points because they have a lot of weapons on offense. They have a lot of receivers, a lot of good running backs, and two good quarterbacks in the rotation.
"As a defense we have a lot of talent. Our main thing is coming together and building chemistry so we can be flying around the field having fun. We're going to carry our share of the load. It's not just an offensive game. Our goal is to force three and outs every time."
Disch is also optimistic.
"It's so early, it's hard to tell how good we can be. We've got some guys that are dinged up, so we've got to get everybody back healthy. If that happens, I think we have a chance."