Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore speaks in optimistic tones about the 2010 defensive line.
"I think we've matured. We're starting to learn the defense, and guys are learning what to do. When you know what to do you can play fast, and it allows you to play a little more aggressive. I think we're coming along fine."
Starting defensive tackle Josh Brent is taking courses at Parkland College to regain his eligibility, and hopefully he'll be back in the fall. Starting defensive end Clay Nurse has not been allowed full contact this spring after shoulder surgery. Gilmore admits he is running low on bodies.
"It's kind of shallow right now. We have some freshmen coming in to help us with some depth. But the guys we've got have to play. Next man in."
Of course, Gilmore is not totally void of talent. Upcoming junior Corey Liuget has lost 20 pounds, and his quickness is back.
"I think it's helped. He's maintained his strength, and I think his stamina is better. He's able to play at a higher level more often than he was before. So I think it's helped him, and I'm looking for a great year from Corey."
"It's hard to say right now. We're trying to give them all equal reps and equal opportunity to play. It's hard to put a finger on it. They bring different things to the table, so maybe we'll do it as a unit. We're trying to find out what everybody's good at, and we'll bring it together as a group."
Nurse started playing well at defensive end last fall before a shoulder dislocation sapped his strength. He could have practiced full-time this spring, but it was better to keep him healthy for fall.
"Clay's progressing fine. I think if we had to play, he could play right now. I'm not a doctor, but I think he's progressed real well. He's been a leader for us in the meeting rooms and on the field, helping guys learn what it takes to play at this level."
In his absence Whitney Mercilus, Justin Staples and freshman Tim Kynard have toiled there. Mercilus is the most experienced, Staples was moved from linebacker, and Kynard sat out all fall following shoulder surgery and is just beginning to get acclimated.
"Whitney's improved," Gilmore states. "Whitney's a solid player, I've just got to get him to play more intense at times. But he's got all the tools it takes to be a great player."
Staples is undersized but quick for the position.
"We'll see how he comes along. But he plays with intensity, and he's got a good pass rush. He's got a great work ethic. He wants to be better every day. He comes here and he's ready to study the game. I think he'll be a welcome addition to us."
When defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brought in a new defensive style, Illini defenders had much to learn. That was not true for Gilmore.
"It's been an easy transition for me. The things we do are things I've done in the past, so it's real easy to coach this defense."
How are the defensive line techniques different in the new system?
"They've got to be a little bit more responsible and understand the defenses a little bit more as opposed to the linebackers telling them what to do all the time. They've got to know what's going on themselves.
"But I like it. It's a good, aggressive vertical defense. We get up the field, and it's something I've done in the past. I'm real comfortable with it."
Illini defensive linemen now split the gaps rather than try to occupy monster offensive linemen. Gilmore feels this style suits the talent on hand.
"Anytime you have a chance to let the guys hit the gaps and not just let the offensive linemen get a bead on them, it helps. Especially when you're undersized like we are right now."