By Paul M. Banks
Watching Illini football closely for the past couple of decades (wow did that sentence sound masochistic) I’ve noticed that the seem to have a good season, at least defensively, when they have to good senior safeties. When they don’t have that talent and experience at that position, they struggle mightily on defense. I wonder if that can be extrapolated across college football? One thing’s for sure, their rival Northwestern has that luxury this season. So it will be interesting to see how their D performs with two excellent seniors playing the safety position.
Free Safety Brendan Smith ranks ninth on NU’s career list for interceptions with seven. He was elected a captain this fall, becoming just the eighth player in NU history to earn repeat captaincy. “Smitty” discussed the importance of playing the safety position.
“They’re the guys that have to be the vocal leaders. they’re the guys that have to make the checks, formation variation if the offense goes into motion. If they (opposing offense) come out in a certain formation, we have to make a call to the corners and also to linebackers. They’re the deepest guys back there, the ones who are the safety valves. With them out there, it maybe gives a confidence level to the rest of their team,” he said before discussing how he’s dealing with all the accolades the team secondary and defense is receiving.
“Once you get ahead of yourself, or think you’re too good for something, that’s when they get ahead of you, or throw a double move on you to catch you off guard. The key to football and the key to our success is when every guy does their job. It’s when I want to make that play, and want to do too much that I mess up.”
At the strong side of the safety position, NU has Brad Phillips, tabbed a first-team preseason All-Big Ten selection by Sporting News and Athlon Sports. In ’08 he was the recipient of the team’s Marcel Price Award (given to player who best exhibits enthusiasm and dedication to the Wildcat program and is symbolic of the former NU player’s desire) He was also named to ESPN’s “All-MayDay” postseason team. I asked him about how important is to have experience at the safety position
“The most important thing is- the experience slows down the game for you, you’re able to see things more, you’re able to make your reads better, it helps you with checking coverages…Brendan Smith helped me out a lot when I was younger, now it’s kind of me and Brendan are the old guys and we’re helping out the young guys now.”
In the Alamo Bowl, slowing down a powerful offense like Missouri, who averaged over 40 points a game last season, helped the team prepare for the powerful passing offenses that they’ll face later in the season.
“I think it was a big confidence booster, we didn’t finish the job, but I think the guys that are coming back, it gave us the confidence that we can play with the best of the best. The Big 12 North Champion, All-American at tight end, receiver being drafted in the first round, and in the off-season it gave us the hunger to finish the job, hopefully with a bowl win this year,” Phillips said.