Illini Season Preview, part 2: The Defense

By Paul Schmidt

The Illini defense has been nothing if not maligned in the past two seasons. Criticisms of “not fast enough” and “not talented enough” have echoed through the sports pages, and though the team continues to say that they don’t buy into the negativity, it’s hard to say that hearing the comments don’t create a self-defeating attitude.

With that possibility in mind, the 2009 Illini defense sets out to defeat the self-defeating…ness.  Yes, they are inventing not just new attitudes, but words as well!

The defensive line, last season, was purported to be one of the deepest units in the entire country. The problem was, after a season ending knee injury to Sirod Williams, that depth seemed to kind of disappear, and the vaunted defensive line many times seemed lost.  Williams could be viewed as one of the biggest keys to the success of the defensive line, even if his presence only provides solid depth (though, most likely, he will be counted on for much more than that).

In a recent chat on, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore was asked about Williams’ presence on the line and what it means.

“I expect Sirod to be a leader and a force on the defensive line,” Gilmore said. “He’s recovered well from the injury and I think he’s going to be a big factor in our success.”

Williams also believes that he is going to be able to come back strong and be an asset to the defense.

“I’m just anxious to do it, to get back out on the field,” Williams said. “My best asset would be against the run block, and using my hands against it, and definitely taking every play seriously. I don’t take any plays off.”

It’s that motor and energy that, at times, the Illini front four seemed to miss.

He won’t be alone in experience on the defensive line, however, as the Illini return another fifth year senior in defensive end Doug Pilcher. Pilcher, who is on the Ted Hendricks (best defensive end) award watch list, has also started since 2006 and, along with Williams, provide leadership for not just the D-line but the entire defense.

The linebacking corps will start and finish with Martez Wilson.  As he goes, so goes the unit, so to speak.  And though Illinois is a school known for its storied history of linebackers, the last few seasons under Ron Zook much of the martez_mich_ffaction in the unit has flowed through the middle linebacker – the position that Wilson is taking over this season.

Wilson certainly has the talent, the speed and athleticism to take over the position. The question is, does he have the head for it?

“Coming in as the middle assignment linebacker I feel confident, I feel great about our defense,” Wilson said. ”I’m looking forward to camp, the first game against Missouri. I’m ready, and I’m focused.”

For his part, Zook believes that Wilson is ready and is counting on Wilson for big things.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.”

The secondary is the group with not only the most turnover (goodbye, Vontae Davis!), but with one of the team’s most injury prone players. Defensive back Miami Thomas, in the mix to start at cornerback or, at worst, be the Illini nickel back, tore the ACL in his left knee and will miss the season.  It was an especially tough break for Thomas, who had to take a medical redshirt last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee.

Hicks returning his forced fumble for a touchdown against Iowa

The unit will push on, however, if a little thinner, and it will be led by senior (and returning three-year starter) Dere Hicks.  Hicks has a knack for the spectacular on the field, as can be evidenced by his spectacular sack-fumble-recovery-touchdown sequence against Iowa, but knows that he and the rest of the defense need to bone up on the basics.

“That comes down to studying films, and knowing your opponents, and knowing where they attack at,” Hicks said. “Every day we probably have to go against the number one receiving corps in the nation – at least I think – and that’s only going to make us better as a secondary.”

Hicks definitely believes the team underachieved last season and is ready to turn things around, with team chemistry being one of the biggest factors.

“We definitely are rallying around each other, with this offseason program, we definitely are working and guys have really come together as a team,” Hicks said. “Last year, we were a team, but we weren’t together, a tight-knit group.  So this year, we’ve really made a point of getting together off the field a lot, go out to eat together, things like that.”

Hicks then said just the thing that should make every Illini fan excited to see the defense, not just the offense, on the field this fall; matching the attitude of an ever more rabid fan base:

“We’re more hungry than ever, man.”