Dan Disch has been coaching linebackers throughout head coach Ron Zook's tenure at Illinois. He has had some excellent linebackers in his time, but he's lacked the quantity of top talent to overcome injuries without a dropoff. This year might be an exception.
Redshirt juniors Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas line up as the starting inside linebackers, and both have great promise. Wilson is a freakish athlete with great size and speed. He sat out last year with a herniated disc in his neck. Thomas replaced him in the middle and was the team's leading tackler.
Redshirt sophomore Evan Frierson saw extensive action last year and figures to be improved as Wilson's backup. Senior Aaron Gress won Most Improved Defender in the spring and adds aggressiveness to the group. Freshman Jonathan Brown appears to be a natural, and fellow freshman Houston Bates is coming along nicely.
It is Wilson upon whom Disch and the Illini's hopes lie. He was a five-star recruit upon whom expectations have been through the roof. At 6'-4", 250 pounds, he runs a 4.4 forty and is revered as a leader by his teammates. Does Disch feel he is ready to reach his potential this year?
"He was poised to have a good season (in 2009)," Disch reminds. "Maybe having a breakout year and doing the things everyone felt he's capable of doing. That's where we hope he's at now. He's got a lot of ability. Right now it's whether he can put it all together."
One knock on Wilson has been his lack of physicality. At times in fall practice, he has blown up plays with great force. Is he ready to do that consistently?
"We'll have to see on Saturdays. You can't tell. He's got the ability to do those things. He's had a year off, he's had surgery. We'll see."
Many fans wish Wilson was stationed at defensive end or Bandit, where his measurables appear an ideal fit. This is not a foreign concept to the coaches either.
"Oh yeah, we talked about it. For us, we just couldn't do without him in the middle. We'd like him at the Bandit position too. We just thought Mike Buchanan is doing a great job there, very athletic and can run. We feel the guys there are competent and can do the job.
"There's about 8 positions you'd like a guy like Martez to play. You just don't have enough of them to go around. He's got his hands full where he's at. We want him to be our leader right where he's at."
Disch has good things to say about his other candidates.
"Martez missed a year, so Ian is excited he's back. Ian Thomas has had a great camp. Aaron Gress has done a good job, as well as Evan Frierson. Those two guys are back. We feel like that first group of four guys can play a lot of minutes.
"And then freshman Jonathan Brown has really been impressive, and Houston Bates has done a nice job. They've all worked hard. Now it's time to get paid, see what happens."
Frierson was better against the run than the pass in 2009. Is he more well-rounded now?
"It's just a matter of learning the scheme. I think he's come a long way. I think we'll be pleased with him. We're looking for big things from him."
Gress was a special team terror last fall, and he improved his linebacker play in the spring. Has he continued to make progress over the summer?
"I think he has. He really likes to play. He's an energetic kid that runs around and likes football. I think he's ready to go."
Brown made an early impression at Camp Rantoul by filling holes with authority. He is experienced at an inside linebacker slot because he played the same position in high school.
"He's got good inside linebacker instincts. He's got natural instincts, he really does."
Bates is learning a new position, but he is beginning to prove why he got an early scholarship offer from LSU.
"Houston played defensive end in high school, so it's gonna take him a little longer."
It appears both freshmen have earned playing time on special teams. Bates was somewhat of a legend as an energetic special team monster at St. Paul's in Covington, Louisiana.
"I hope so. We've been telling them since they got here they've got to get on special teams and make the trip."
Disch, who will operate out of the press box this year, is not prone to exaggerate the positives. But in his indirect way, he was as positive as one could expect prior to the season when asked if he felt good about linebacker play.
"Us coaches never feel good, man. We're ready to go play and see what we can do. You hope that those guys have been around here long enough that they can help us win ball games."