Don’t be surprised if the Illini run the table the rest of the way. Even if they don’t, already at 5-3, (3-2 in Big Ten) they have greatly improved upon last year’s 3-9 mark and will likely make their way into a pretty decent bowl. This season is a pleasant surprise to say the least.
The MVP of 2010 is probably newly installed defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. The Illini rank 12th nationally in points allowed (16.8 ppg), 15th in total defense (301.4 ypg), 19th in pass defense (183.9) and 26th in rushing yards allowed (117.5 ypg), all while facing the toughest schedule in the nation.
At the end of last season, Illinois was 96th in scoring defense (30.2 ppg), 100th in pass defense (248.8), 91st in total defense (403.3 ypg) and 76th in rushing defense (154.4 ypg).
And Koenning and company have personnel too. Among the talent on the Illini roster is a trio of juniors with NFL level measurables and potential. Tailback Mike LeShoure, Middle Linebacker Martez Wilson and Defensive Tackle Corey Liuget will probably all be playing on Sundays.
He plays on defense but wears the same number as QB Nathan Scheelhaase. As the guy who plays the Mike position, he does a lot of “quarterbacking” on the other side of the ball. The base 3-4 defensive scheme funnels plays his way, and there are plenty of chances to make tackles. Wilson is finally coming into his own after encountering plenty of adversity during his first few years in Champaign.
Much of Wilson’s growth stems from the now-infamous stabbing incident in December 2008, when he was out at a local bar called Fubar with one of his former teammates – Eastern Illinois standout running back D’Angelo McCray – and two of McCray’s friends from Eastern. The following year, he missed pretty much all of 2009 due to a neck injury.
Wilson’s health made the defense automatically more athletic and dangerous than they were last season, and allowed fellow junior Ian Wilson to move back to his natural Will position.
“I made the comment last year that when Martez got hurt that it was a serious blow. He was the leader of the defense and now you can see why we thought so highly of him. Corey Liuget has stepped up and really done a great job, and Corey has brought Akeem Spence right along with him, both in the classroom and on the football field,” Head Coach Ron Zook said.
Tez, a 6-4, 250 lb product of Chicago Simeon leads Illinois and is fifth in the Big Ten in tackles (8.5 tpg) and also is second on the team in TFLs (6.5) and sacks (2.0). He has led the Illini in tackles in four of the last six games.
The two men who preceded him at the position, J Leman and Brit Miller, each led the conference in tackles. I asked Wilson what he learned from each of them.
“From J I learned that watching film helps a lot, your mental part of the game. What I learned from Brit is to be aggressive, be a dog, always be around the rock even if you don’t make the tackle,” he responded.
Zook had more to say about Wilson on Saturday.
“I think Martez is going to continue get better and better. I feel bad for the guy in some instances, Here’s a guy, because he was such a highly recruited guy, that everyone expected to be Dick Butkus right away. I really think if he would have been fortunate enough to play last year, he would have been much better this year. He’s a talented guy.”
Liuget (that’s pronounced “Legit” like Hammer “2 Legit 2 Quit”) has been a force all season. Against Indiana, he had five tackles, one sack and five QB hurries while helping the defense force five turnovers. The week before at Michigan State, Liuget registered a career-high 11 tackles, marking the most tackles in a game by an Illini defensive lineman since DE Mike O’Brien had 12 stops vs. Missouri in 2002 and the most for a DT since Paul Marshall had 11 at Minnesota in 1996.
Liuget dropped 30 pounds in the offseason to get down to 285 in hopes of being more mobile and harder to block. It seems to have paid off, as Liuget has 37 tackles, a team-high 7.5 TFLs and 3.0 sacks this season to go along with a team-high nine hurries and two PBUs. He has already eclipsed his previous career-high of 36 tackles and 2.5 sacks and is close to passing his career-high of 8.0 TFLs.
Head Coach Ron Zook said at Big Ten Media Day, that he believed this squad has as much talent if not more than the 2007 Rose Bowl squad.
At Illini Media Day a few days later, I asked Liguet what he thought of that quote.
“I agree, but talent is nothing if we don’t push it. That’s what happened last year, we didn’t push it everyday. We came out playing around, we weren’t serious and it showed on the field when Saturdays came around. Talent won’t get you anywhere unless you have the time and effort to go with it. Then there’s a difference,” he said.
It appears they are “pushing it” like early ’90s hip-hop trio Salt n Pepa this year.
You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbankFollow paulmbanks