Martez Wilson is lost for the season due to a herniated disc in his neck. Much talk this week at Illinois football practice centered on Wilson and his replacement. If there was one position on the team where the dropoff in experience between the starter and his top backup is significant, it is middle linebacker.
Senior safety Donsay Hardeman had neck surgery last fall, so he can empathize with Wilson's situation.
"For his injury to happen so early in the year, I feel his pain. I know how I felt when mine happened at the end of the year. It's a key loss. Other players have to step their game up to make up for what we lost.
"All I can tell Martez, like Coach told me, is to stay focused and be a cheerleader on the sideline as I did in the spring. That helps. That gives off energy. It's all what you do. If your heart is in it, stick with it. We're here for Martez through good times and bad times."
Coach Ron Zook says the linebacker corps is ready to forge on without Wilson.
"They understand it's a game. We said in the first meeting that football is a game of adversity. Life is a game of adversity. I always go back to the things I have learned through the game of football that have helped me so much in life.
"It gives guys an opportunity to step up. Look at the Chicago Bears. They lose their linebacker, and they go and line up against the world champions and win. It's just everyone has to step up a little bit. Evan Frierson, I'm sure he feels bad for Martez no question. But deep down inside, he's excited about the opportunity he has as well."
Redshirt freshman Frierson has big shoes to fill, but his teammates support him.
"We look to Evan Frierson and Ian Thomas," defensive end Clay Nurse states. "Evan is gonna be our middle linebacker. Ian is kind of our middle linebacker because he talks a lot. But 'Tez was just a general because he made the calls. He ran the defense.
"Now, we're gonna look at Evan. Evan is a good athlete, he knows the defense. He's gonna learn on the road as a lot of guys have done. Now, it depends on how he deals with the pressure.
"Coach Zook always says, there are two ways to deal with pressure. Either you go into the stands or you fight it. I don't think Evan's the type of guy to back down from anything."
Frierson will play middle linebacker on running downs, with Thomas moving to the middle when the nickel formation is preferred. Thomas is more experienced than Frierson, so Zook says he will likely call the defensive signals.
"We try to put a little more on Ian than we do on Evan. We are trying to just let Evan play. When things are signaled in, everyone needs to know the defense, and they are just listening for a directional call in most instances. It will be a little bit easier for Ian to make it than Evan."
Wilson was considered the general of the defense. Hardeman agrees Thomas will play that role now.
"I say Ian Thomas. Ian makes a lot of checks and calls. He kind of took Martez's place. What he says goes. Everybody is stepping up. You've got some young cats, Evan and Russell Ellington, and they know we trust them or they wouldn't be on the field. Like Coach always says, you never know when your time has come. When your time has come, you've got to be ready to step up to the plate."
The bye week appears to have come at a good time. It has given Illini linebackers more time to adapt to Wilson's loss, both emotionally and in their game preparations. In addition, it has allowed injuries to quarterback Juice Williams, receiver Arrelious Benn and running backs Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford to heal. Williams said Monday he was using the two weeks productively.
"I'm not 100% yet, but I'm going in the right direction. I'm constantly doing rehab, and it's feeling better every day. I've got a long four days left, and I should be fine by Saturday. The bye week couldn't have come at a better time. We have another week to get ready for the Buckeyes."
Defensive end Doug Pilcher liked the opportunity to make improvements during this two week stretch.
"Yeah, I think we got a chance to work on some things we needed to work on. We went back to fundamentals, worked on Illinois football, the things our team can do to get better. I think we cleaned up a lot of things, and now we're ready to go.
"As far as d-line, working on technique and being assignment sound. The ones got a chance to go against the one offense a couple times. So we worked on the speed of the game and that kind of stuff."
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui realizes Illinois must play better than the first two games. The bye week helped them forget past miseries so they could focus on making improvements and look positively toward the future.
"We've got to forget about these first two games. They're in the past. We had a bye week to recover and get together. It's the Big 10 season now, so that's a little added motivation. Hopefully, everyone has forgotten about our first two games, and we can go out and play our game."
He is becoming more of a focal point of the pass offense as he matures and understands the system better. His long-term practice with Williams helps.
"After I've been around Juice for awhile, we are more comfortable with each other and know what each other is gonna do. We're so much more comfortable with the playbook, not only about what our responsibilities are, but everyone around us also. That helps us alot."
Zook likes the progress Hoomanawanui has made.
"I was talking to him at supper, and we were talking about where he's come from, where he's gone and what his goals are. He has always been a great catcher, always been able to catch the football. But he understands the game so much better now.
"He's a big, strong guy that works hard. He's a leader. His blocking is getting better and better. A lot of guys come in here and unless they have done it a lot, they don't understand, particularly at tight end, that they have to be able to block.
"We can move him around and let him do something. He is smart and besides his God-given ability, he is football smart and understands the game. I think it has helped him make the normal transition you would expect a guy to make."
Williams starred two years ago at Ohio State, upsetting the unbeaten Buckeyes on the way to the Rose Bowl. Zook says that undoubtedly helps Williams approach this year's game.
"When you have good things happen in tough situations like that, usually there is a confidence growth there. I think Juice in a lot of ways has made the normal progression that you would expect a guy to make in his fourth year. He understands and it is important to him to continue to grow and to continue to get better, as we all have to do."
OSU's Terrelle Pryor is much like Williams in terms of his progress as a college quarterback. Both are outstanding runners who are learning to be more efficient passers. Pryor poses a major threat to the Illinois defense, so practice this week utilized speedy freshman Nathan Scheelhaase imitating him with the show squad.
"It's not always about the big hit," Hardeman says when describing the challenge of tackling Pryor. "If you grab and hold on, he'll go down. He is a guy that can make you miss, but he is not a powerful runner. As long as you grab on and hold him down and not try to make the big hit. If you try to make the big hit, you might end up missing."
Hardeman has tried to limit his big hits this year to improve his tackling efficiency. He says it is not because he is protecting his neck from further injury.
"It's just that sometimes you try to make a big hit and end up missing. They get yardage after that. A three yard catch might turn into a 27 yard catch. Coaches are always telling me, the big hits are coming during the course of the game. So just tackle and get them on the ground."
The Illini players have endured a great deal of negativism from fans and fellow students over the past three weeks. But Nurse claims there is no loss of confidence.
"The confidence level is high. It's Ohio State. If you can't get up for Ohio State, one of the best teams in the country, you shouldn't play college football. The mystique is there. When you walk in, you see all the ravenous fans, and they're ready to compete."
Zook says team goals are still within reach.
"That's what I told the team after the Missouri game. I'll be honest with you, I never thought we were going to go 12-0. The first thing out of my mouth after the game was that. That's a game that you learn from. I think it put a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, but as I told the staff this morning, I feel the same way about this football team as I did five weeks ago.
"I think we have to go play, and we have to go prove that. That's why we play the games, and that's why it is fun to be a competitor and compete. These guys will learn from that and bounce back.
"I think if you go back and look at the ISU game we got better, especially in the first half. There's not a whole lot of things you can change in the first half of that Illinois State game. We have to continue to get better. I think we used last week to continue to get better, and it's important that we continue to get better this week."