Peanut Tillman Inspiring Illini Defense to Force Takeaways

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Illini football Coach Lovie Smith has repeatedly emphasized what he feels is the most important aspect of defense is- forcing turnovers, converting them into points. When he head coach of the Chicago Bears, Smith’s defenses led the NFL in takeaways twice. During his nine year regime, the Bears finished in the NFL’s top eight in turnovers recovered seven times.

Smith has the perfect role model to instill this philosophy in the Illinois Fighting IlliniCharles Peanut Tillman.

In his first game as Illini head coach, Illinois took it away on the very first two defensive drives. They went on to beat lowly FCS foe Murray State handily.

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The newly retired Charles “Peanut” Tillman stopped by Illini practice one day in August and gave the team a pep talk.

Around the same time that Tillman visited, Lovie installed a football sign contraption (pictured above) in the team meeting room that every defender must touch upon entering and exiting the area. Yes, every defender must hit the ball as they enter the team meeting room. The new contraption doesn’t have an official name, but many have referred to it as “The Peanut Punch Machine.”

“We talk a lot about takeaways, and in order to have that mindset, always, it’s a reminder. We would like to see them punching the ball every play during the season too,” Smith on the Peanut Punch contraption.

“I remember training camp, he once went 21 straight days with a takeaway. That’s hard to do,” Smith said of Peanut Tillman

This past weekend, Tillman began work as a NFL Analyst for FOX this season. In the lead-up to the FOX on NFL season kickoff, he did a preview press call. Peanut Tillman said that he did notice the takeaways Illinois accomplished in the season opener, and he also gave his take on how he thinks Illinois will do this season.

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“I’m not surprised it, when you’re around Coach Smith and all the success that he’s had, his defenses will always find a way to turn the ball over,” Peanut Tillman said on the press call.

“It’s expected when you play for him.”

“It’s something that he preaches, day in and day out. If there’s an incomplete pass in practice, you’re picking it up and running it back. If you force a fumble in practice you’re running it back, interception, you’re running it back. It’s something that he just beats inside your head over and over and over and over and over and over again.”

“I guarantee you’ll see a lot of that, this entire season from his defense. I don’t know about offense, but defensively they’re going to cause some takeaways.”

Tillman’s comments game before week two’s contest against North Carolina; which had an entirely different result. While Illini forced three turnovers and committed none in week one, a 52-3 victory, Illinois forced one turnover and gave one away in week two, a 48-23 loss.

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Indeed the Illinois offense did struggle mightily Saturday night, not really showing any kind of consistency after the first quarter. The Illini won the time of possession battle decisively, but really kept undoing any potential offensive drives with self-defeating penalties. In total, the Illini conceded 99 penalty yards to UNC.

While the whole team received an uplift from the appearance and pep talk by Peanut Tillman this summer, it obviously had an extra special meaning for the Illini secondary.

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Cornerback Jaylen Dunlap got to pick the brain of one of the greatest to ever play his position at the professional level.

“It was a great experience, just to see what it takes to be a pro, about technique and everything, technique is so important,” said Dunlap, a Chicago native who played his prep ball at Crete-Monee high school.

Tillman is probably the best cornerback in Bears history, and potentially a player that could be enshrined one day in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Illinois showed a penchant for taking the ball away last season as they ranked fourth in the Big Ten, 37th nationally in turnover margin for 2015. Overall, pass defense was the strength of last year’s team, as the Illini finished 15th nationally in passing yards allowed per game.

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“He’s a great guy to learn from, because he has a lot of experience, it was nice to have somebody to look up to and that we can learn from,” starting strong safety Julian Hylton said of Peanut dropping by the facilities.

“It was amazing, really a blessing.”

The other corner, starting opposite Dunlap, is Darius Mosely, who described some of the specific Tillman lessons that he took to heart, like valuing patience in going against a receiver.

“Some receivers like to get all fancy, and just being patient, and knowing what you’re going to do to stop them and just being able to play your game and not let them get into your mind,” Mosely said.

Starting free safety is Taylor Barton, the only returnee among Illinois’ top six tacklers last season. Barton led the team in interceptions last season with four, and this season he is one of the senior team leaders in Lovie’s famous “Tampa 2” scheme. Barton enjoyed the visit from Tillman, and said that, given Lovie’s NFL pedigree, he expects more accomplished players to come by.

“We have a lot of big time players, players in the NFL, players that used to be in the NFL, and are now retired, they’re going to come around, you’re going to see them, and it’s nice to see them and pick their brain a little bit, so it’s something we’re kind of getting used to.”

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You can’t ask for much of a better recruiting tool than that; although you saw another great one Saturday night- a packed stadium with an electric atmosphere.

Saturday night saw the first sell out for the Illini since 2011, and the first non-conference sell-out since 1987. The result obviously wasn’t what the crowd wanted, but this Saturday brings another home game, 3 PM versus Western Michigan.

“It was a great atmosphere, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” said Dunlap.

“I hope and pray that the fans come back, and just move on as fast as we’re moving on.”

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. and News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, currently contributes regularly to the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye publication and Bold Global.

He also consistently appears on numerous radio and television talk shows all across the country. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and Sound Cloud.

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