Justin Staples Taking To Position Switch

The Fighting Illini football team lacked speed off the edge last season, so they couldn't generate a consistent pass rush. In an effort to bolster defensive end, they moved linebacker Justin Staples to back up Clay Nurse. He took to the position quickly and now can use his speed to chase down quarterbacks.

Justin Staples wasn't able to crack the lineup at outside linebacker his first couple years, so he was asked to move to defensive end. With the new Illinois defense brought in by Vic Koenning, end was a better fit.

"The coaches have made sure there would be a smooth transition for me. I was recruited as an outside linebacker. Now with this new defense, they want the inside linebackers to be stocky, downhill guys. They felt with my speed, I'd be better on the edge at end. I've been hitting the playbook hard, and they're really helping me along."

He has a gift that is essential at his new position.

"Obviously, I think my strength is gonna be speed. Whitney (Mercilus), Clay (Nurse) and I are all gonna be speed guys coming off the edge. As the season goes along, and getting back into Camp Rantoul, we'll all be able to play the run. But I think our strengths will be speed at the defensive end spot."

Playing the run might prove difficult at times for the young man from St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio, but he's working to overcome his lack of weight.

"Actually, I gained about 10 pounds in the off season, so I'm up to about 238-240. It wasn't as bad as I thought it was gonna be. Obviously, these are Big 10 tackles, Big 10 football, and they're gonna try to pound the ball at me.

"But Coach Lou (Hernandez) worked on me to improve my strength, and that's a big plus for me. I might not have the same weight as other Big 10 defensive ends. I feel that will come more with age. But I think my strength is a big plus for me."

Of course, more physical development would be helpful.

"I really want to keep working on my strength, maybe gain about 5-10 more pounds before the season. There are some things that weight helps more, even more than strength."

Power teams love to run straight at undersized defensive ends. Is he ready for that challenge?

"I'm gonna hold my ground. I think I did a good job of that this spring. I wasn't really getting blown off the rock like I thought at first I was going to be. I'm gonna just keep holding my own. I'm getting my pads level because if not, I end up with the safeties."

The move from linebacker appears permanent, and Staples accepts that.

"I really want to do what I can to help the team. So if the coaches say linebacker isn't the position for me, then I love playing defensive end. I actually played some defensive end in high school. So I'm really loving this position."

Staples had an excellent Spring Game and was in on a number of tackles. A student of the game, he felt the improvement coming as spring practices proceeded.

"Yes sir, I did. I really made sure I didn't make the same mistakes. Coach (Keith) Gilmore teaches us what defensive line play means, and every day I write down what he says and make sure I'm not messing up on that same thing that day. It really was an easy transition."

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