Illini Defense Adapts To Personnel Changes

The Fighting Illini football team received bad news this past week when it lost three potential starters in the defensive secondary. The Missouri Tigers are probably licking their chops over the news. Illini coaches have been working feverishly to move personnel and modify game plans to compensate. Where do things stand at this time?

Illinois lost safety Supo Sanni to a torn Achilles tendon in his right foot, cornerback Terry Hawthorne to a stress reaction in his right foot, and safety Walt Aikens when the university denied his appeal for reinstatement after a run-in with the law. Illini coaches have moved running back Justin Green and receivers Jack Ramsey and Steve Hull to defense to compensate.

The moves make sense for the long run as all three have excellent potential. But they are receiving a crash course on defensive back play and have precious little time to learn everything and play relaxed Saturday. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning summarizes the situation.

"We have some things to overcome. We've still got a lot of coaching to do, and we've got a lot of learning to do, especially in the secondary.

"Obviously, when you lose three guys in the period of a few days, three starter-type guys, then you move some new guys into those roles, you just can't do everything you ordinarily would want to do.

"You have to be somewhat vanilla I would think. These guys have taken thousands of reps in the spring, the summer and two-a-days in camp. You can't make up for those reps and that experience."

True. But junior Tavon Wilson, who was moved from boundary corner to safety as part of the realignment, says Koenning may still have some things up his sleeve.

"Coach Vic is still putting new things into the game plan for Missouri. Those guys have to put extra time in so they can learn stuff we already learned."

Illinois head coach Ron Zook's job is to keep the team confident and the public optimistic. He says the situation isn't as dire as it seems.

"You've got Tavon Wilson, who started, and I think he has a good chance of being an awfully good player before he leaves here. Travon Bellamy has played an awful lot of football and he has started. Trulon (Henry) is a guy that will probably end up being a starter anyway and he has had a great camp. We have some older guys who are more mature and don't get rattled.

"I was looking at our kickoff team (from last year), and Justin Green went down and made the first two tackles of the game last year as a true freshman. I think everybody is going to have new guys someplace, and I guess that is just part of the game."

Green was highly rated at Louisville Male both as a running back and cornerback.

"We are one of the few bigger schools that offered him as a running back, and that was because that is what he wanted to play," Zook explains. "He had committed to Ohio State as a defensive back, and he came to me. I didn't say anything to him; he actually came to me up at Camp Rantoul. I wanted to talk to his mom and dad and make sure it was all right with them.

"Obviously the corners don't have as many different techniques as the safeties, for example. They are not going to be involved so much in run support, and they can go out there on the edge. He has the God-given ability, he has acceleration, he can run like a deer, he is strong and physical. I am impressed with him."

Wilson is impressed both by Green and Ramsey.

"Justin Green has adapted pretty quick. He's a natural at the position and has a lot of natural instincts. The only thing he has to do is get the playbook down. I think him and Jack Ramsey will be pretty good players for us."

A wild card at cornerback is Miami Thomas. He has had surgeries on both knees and both shoulders and began fall camp uncertain and fearful for his health. But Zook says Thomas is making progress.

"It took Miami about a week-and-a-half before he really felt confident. The second scrimmage we had was when I knew he was coming back. He won't tell you this if you ask him, but I think his first goal was to get through Rantoul. Here is a guy that has had every major joint in his body operated on, and I know we talked about it before we got up there.

"When we came back here and scrimmaged that Saturday, that's when I really felt like he has got it back. He does some things that are natural that you don't coach. As long as he doesn't try things that we don't want to do. You want guys like that, but you have to know when to try them. I think he is going to have a big year for us."

Wilson was the Illini's best cornerback, but he has the size, aggressiveness and knowledge of the defense to adapt quickly to safety. Zook explains why it helps to have an experienced player at safety.

"I think the biggest thing was communication. Any time you have a guy who can play more than one position, if you don't have enough players, that is how you get depth. You can stick Tavon on the corner at any time. He is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and he is going to get everyone lined up and make the calls back there that he needs to make. That is the biggest reason.

"The more experienced players that you have, the better you feel. Particularly those guys that are playing in their first game, there will be a lot of nerves and so forth. But Tavon has just matured as a person over the summer. How he handles everything; how he handles life off the field.

"I went in there the other night about 10 o'clock, and he and about five other defensive backs were in there watching tape. I think that is a good thing. He is taking charge, and he is only a third-year player."

Wilson accepts a leadership role.

"I'm the one who's getting everybody lined up in the right positions. I definitely feel like I'm a leader back there. I can lead more from free safety than the cornerback position so I can communicate with everybody else.

"I try to bring all the defensive backs into the film room, and we study stuff. I tell them stuff I used to do when I played cornerback to help them come along."

The Washington, D.C. product has adapted quickly to safety.

"It's kind of an adjustment for me, but I kind of knew all the positions from when Coach Vic was teaching everybody else. So if something like this did happen I would be prepared for it. Coach says my personality fits the position. I'm excited about it and have no worries about it."

He admits the injuries were difficult to accept, but he feels the Illini can still field a decent secondary.

"It's been rough. Obviously, we've lost two really good players in Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne. That's the way football goes.

"We're still pretty confident, but obviously you take a big blow from losing those two guys. I feel we added some pretty athletic guys from the offensive side of the ball, and we have some other guys on defense. So I think we're still gonna be pretty good."

Koenning tried in vain to stop Blaine Gabbert and the Missouri offense last year when he coached at Kansas State. Even with a full complement of players, it would be a major challenge in St. Louis Saturday.

"I didn't have any luck last year. A couple times I did try to blitz him he shredded us. You still have to do it. You still have to make the effort to get to him. You've just got to try to be prudent. You watch a lot of film, and you see guys bouncing off him too. He's a big strong guy.

"Offensively, they're a team that's been really successful 4, 5, 6 years running, ever since they've been there. They've got the system down pretty well."

Assuming no further setbacks, the Illini will start Bellamy and Green at corners, backed by Ramsey, Pat Nixon-Youman and Thomas. The safety starters are Wilson and Henry backed by Joelil Thrash and Hull. Zook put a positive spin on his troops.

"Trust me, we're not as bad as you guys (media) seem to make it."


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