Illinois Fighting Ilini Season Preview: Defense


If there’s one thing I know in life, it’s that Illinois college football never ever conforms to your expectations. No one saw their two BcS appearances coming (2001, 2007); and since they followed both seasons up with sub .500 choking, both these bowl appearances are now looked upon as fluky. Whenever Illinois has been predicted to do well (2000, 2002, 2008, 2009) they fell flat on their faces. And their bowl wins (last year, 1999) come in seasons when everyone predicts them to finish near the Big Ten basement.

And I know a lot about this stuff.

My first ever sports memory was their destruction at the hands of UCLA in the 1984 Rose Bowl. I attended my first Illini game in 1991. In addition to covering the team for the school paper when I was in school there, two of my older siblings went to UI. In other words, it’s “my team,” and one of the three teams I cover regularly.

The defense was pretty solid for the first half of the season, and then it collapsed versus Michigan and Minnesota. They figured it out again though for the final three versus Northwestern, Fresno and Baylor as the ppg average again dipped back towards normalcy.

Corey Liuget left early to become a top 20 pick in the NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. Keep an eye on Akeem Spence, the sophomore that moves over to Corey’s old position.

Zook on Spence, who took home multiple freshman honors: “he’s quicker, and he’s got his weight down at that three technique.”

“I learned from Corey how to be a leader and work everyday. When Corey was here we had a few more veteran guys, right now we have a lot of younger guys, so I have to take on the role as a leader, getting the guys to come to work everyday to learn the playbook and take on their assignments,” Spence said.

Spence talked about the transition from nose guard to the three, and his conditioning this summer.

“Conditioning went great, overall as a d line we got stronger, and this is the best summer I’ve had and the team has had since I’ve been here with everyone making their times,” said Spence.

Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne lead the secondary. The unit was weak last year, but it will be a strength this year as they’ll have more health and experience. It wasn’t until late in 2010 that the group had more cohesion from people being healthy and playing together. And everyone will benefit from a second year in the new system.

“It is a little easier this year, and that’s something we can’t lose sight of,” Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning said.

“It’s not like your starting from scratch, and we should be able to build on that. And not make as many mistakes,” he continued.

If they can find another Mike Linebacker to play to their system and be a tackles machine, and get another Corey Liuget type disruptor, things will be fine. If the defense is that solid, it end the SOUL-CRUSHING tradition of failing to produce back-to-back bowl/winning seasons. George H.W. Bush, or Bush 41 if you will, was president the last time they accomplished this.

It all depends on how well they replace the trio (Leshoure, Liuget, and Martez Wilson) of early entries who were picked in the first couple days of the NFL Draft. Then again, all three were essentially one-year wonders, so who will be the next obscure-to-NFL player to come from Champaign? Did anyone expect to see Nate Bussey getting drafted?

For a concise season preview go here

For the offense season preview go here

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports 

He does regular weekly radio spots in Chicago and Cleveland and has appeared on live shows all across the world from Houston to New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter

Speak Your Mind