The Illinois defense lacked cohesiveness last year. It lost confidence against a rugged early schedule and never recovered. There was minimal teamwork and trust as inconsistencies marred play. And several top players sat out with major injuries.
Changes had to be made. Vic Koenning replaced co-coordinators Dan Disch and Kurt Mallory, the latter now the defensive coordinator at Akron. Koenning is a former head coach at Wyoming who had great success leading the Clemson defense for four years. He is looking for a repeat performance with the Illini.
Koenning wants to be unpredictable, and his brief description of his preferred style of play gives that concept credence. It will take awhile for the defense to pick up all the changes, and they will not show everything to the public until fall.
In the meantime, there will be a great deal of teaching and evaluation. Several holes must be filled, depth must be found and developed, and new techniques taught. The defense may not display its true potential this spring.
Among the changes, one defensive end will now be called a "Bandit," and he will be a hybrid end/linebacker with occasional pass coverage responsibilities. And the SAM linebacker will no longer be a big bruiser but a hybrid linebacker/safety capable both of attacking the line and defending in space.
There will likely be much shuffling of personnel to find everyone's best position. The defensive tackles and one defensive end will keep most of the same responsibilities, as will the middle linebacker. But after that, much remains unclear except to those closest to the program.
Defensive end Clay Nurse, middle linebacker Martez Wilson, cornerback Miami Thomas and safety Garrett Edwards will sit out part or all of spring ball as they recover from major surgery. Defensive tackle Josh Brent is at Parkland trying to regain eligibility. They are all potential starters.
Defensive line coach Keith Gilbert will be short-handed this spring without Nurse and Brent. Corey Liuget is a fixture at one tackle spot. If he can lose some weight from last year and get in top shape, he can be a difference-maker due to his quickness and intelligence.
Defensive end Glenn Foster may be moved to tackle. If so, he will compete with redshirt freshmen Akeem Spence and Lendale Buckner as backups. Buckner had knee problems last fall. Darryl Ballew has had recurring shoulder problems, but he's another candidate there if healthy.
Nurse played well last fall before repeated shoulder dislocations weakened his ability to separate from offensive linemen. He should be 100% by fall. Redshirt sophomore Whitney Mercilus may now be ready to show what he can do there.
Redshirt freshman Tim Kynard sat out last fall with shoulder surgery, so it remains to be seen whether he will be an end or tackle. Walkon defensive end Wilson Onyegbule might get his first opportunity to earn playing time after two years on the practice squad. Linebackers Nate Palmer and/or Justin Staples may be tested at end.
The Illini now have two linebacker coaches. Disch continues on staff, specializing with inside backers. New assistant Ron West handles the SAM backer and the Bandit. It is uncertain at this time which linebackers will be positioned where, but some possibilities come to mind.
Martez Wilson was slated at middle linebacker last fall but suffered a herniated disc in his neck and was lost for the year with surgery. He will practice but be restricted to noncontact drills only. Speculation on his possible move to another position is just that at this time.
He is backed in the middle by Evan Frierson. The Washington, D.C. sophomore struggled at times last fall as an untested rookie, but he has the speed, strength and mentality for the position. He plays too straight up at times and is faster straight ahead than laterally. But he has potential once he gains confidence in his reads. Seniors Aaron Gress and Dustin Jefferson may get a chance on the inside.
Junior Ian Thomas was the leading tackler last fall in the middle, and he could return there. But he may be tried at the WILL position and compete with Russell Ellington. Thomas should be a confident, mature leader among the linebackers. Ellington had good moments and has the speed for the position. But he needs to develop more aggression and continue gaining confidence in himself and his assignments.
WILL linebacker Nate Bussey has outstanding straight-ahead speed and has background both as a safety and linebacker. He may join Coach West and work out at the SAM position. Ashante Williams has the size and physical tools, so he may be a candidate there as well. Junior college transfer Trulon Henry might also work out there if he doesn't find playing time at safety.
The competition for Bandit will be interesting. Sophomore Michael Buchanan worked exclusively as a pass rusher last fall, but he is 6'-5" and has the agility to work in space. He will be challenged by Staples or Nate Palmer if either or both don't stay at end. Perhaps others may be tried there as well.
The cornerbacks and safeties are unsettled as well. Miami Thomas has been out two straight years with shoulder and knee surgeries. He is a natural cornerback when healthy, but he will be restricted to noncontact drills this spring.
Junior Tavon Wilson and sophomore Terry Hawthorne started at corner the last few games of 2009. Wilson is big for a cornerback and has the experience to be effective in zone coverage. He might develop into a leader of the defense as well.
Hawthorne burst on the scene last fall with an interception return for touchdown and a touchdown-saving tackle that changed the course of the Michigan game. He is a better safety than corner, and some want him on offense, but he should be improved with experience.
Backups are uncertain. Patrick Nixon-Youman has outstanding quickness and can cover in man defense when healthy. But he had major pelvic surgery last spring and returned too soon last fall. He hadn't gotten his quickness back yet. If it has returned, he could provide good competition.
Joelil Thrash operated at cornerback last fall as a true freshman but may be tried at safety. Senior journeyman Antonio Gulley returns for his last chance to earn playing time. And redshirt freshman Tommie Hopkins is finally healthy after leg surgery. It is unknown whether he will be worked at corner or safety.
Another wild card is junior Travon Bellamy. A valuable nickel back as a freshman, surgeries on both shoulders set him back a year both phyically and emotionally. When he returned, he was moved to safety and lost confidence when he didn't have success. He moved back to corner last fall but didn't crack the starting lineup. Will he be able to get his swagger back? What position will he play?
Supo Sanni and Walt Aikens both have some experience at safety and should battle for playing time there along (maybe) with Henry and Thrash.
Illinois coaches may know where everyone fits, but it is too early for anyone else to figure out. Hopefully, everyone will be at the position that best enhances their skills by the end of spring. But even then, the true nature of the Illini defense won't be known until they line up to play Missouri in St. Louis this fall.