Outside Linebackers Improving Under West

When Vic Koenning was hired as the Illini defensive coordinator, he promised changes. Ron West was brought in to coach the Bandit and hybrid linebacker/safety positions that have different responsibilities from their predecessors. It is taking awhile for the Illini players to learn new concepts, but they are beginning to catch on.

Ron West has a difficult assignment in his first year on the Illinois football coaching staff. He is coaching two positions that require the learning of new concepts. It is a time-consuming process.

"We're getting better. We've just got to keep working. There's a lot to learn. It's like anything else. Some times things happen for the first time. You correct the mistakes and then something else may happen.

"You're teaching them how to see things and how to react to things, play disciplined, do things right, understand what they've got. We've progressed slowly, but we've got to keep pressing. It's been a work in process.

"We haven't gotten what we really wanted yet, but they're trying. They've got to get it. I think once we get it, we'll be right where we want to be. Our scheme is very multiple, which forces you to have a little bit more of a learning curve."

The Bandit position is part defensive end and part linebacker. He puts his hand on the ground to rush the passer, but he also drops in pass coverage. It requires special athletes to do both well, and plenty of repetition.

Sophomore Michael Buchanan has held down the starting spot since early spring. West says he continues to improve.

"Yes sir. He's hampered with a little bit of an injury right now, but he's still okay. He's practicing through it. He's got to get healthy, and he's got to continue to get better. Pressing backs, getting off blocks, and creating more of a pass rush."

Nate Palmer backed Buchanan all spring and early fall, but he has been sidelined by a toe problem.

"We're holding him out right now. He did some good things (in the Rantoul High School scrimmage), but he did miss practice, which forces us to work some other guys at Bandit now."

Illini coaches made a position switch to bolster the position.

"We moved Justin Staples to work there a little bit, and Staples has done some good things. He was at the other end spot, and we moved him to Bandit.

"We have (freshman Brandon) Denmark there, Staples and Mike. We don't know how long Palmer will be out, but we felt like Staples was a guy we could do that with because he's been playing end. They're very similar positions."

The other position West coaches is an outside linebacker with both linebacker and safety responsibilities. Athletes who play there must be aggressive and strong like linebackers while being able to drop into pass coverage like a nickel back so opponents will have trouble diagnosing the defensive play call.

Nathan Bussey has been listed as #1 at the position, but he is being challenged by Ashante Williams. Freshman Earnest Thomas is also in the mix.

Bussey is fast and aggressive, and he's a leader. But he still needs to improve some things.

"Just being able to play under control and balance, being able to open his hips and be able to flip them. Those are things he's had problems with. He takes a lot of pride in what he does, so if he continues to work he'll be fine. He'll continue to get better.

"He's pretty much all into this thing. He wants to do well and wants the program to do well. He's a team guy, and I think he's committed to doing well for us and this program. He wants everybody to do their best."

West sees Williams as a viable alternative.

"Ashante has been doing some good things. And Bussey has gotten a little bit better. Just great competition there. Both of them have different traits, different skills."

Will Thomas make an impact this season?

"He's coming along pretty good. He's learning a lot of different things and making some mistakes. But he's trying. We've just got to keep him going and bring him along slowly so he understands the mistake he made and can move on to the next one.

"He could be one of those type of guys who can play special teams. We are looking at him on special teams. We'll be looking at a few freshmen on special teams."

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