CHAMPAIGN — After Wednesday’s practice, Illinois defensive players and their coaches watched film of the Illini’s 2011 game against Wisconsin in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Badgers. What they saw was a unit that looks nothing like the outfit wearing Illinois uniforms this season.
And for all the talk in the change in schemes from last year to this year, it didn’t have a whole lot to do with the play-calling.
“It didn’t matter what defense we were playing, we played hard, played with a lot of energy, and I think that’s one of the reasons we were successful against them,” UI senior defensive end Michael Buchanan said.
The Wisconsin game last year was one of the six straight that Illinois lost to close the season, but the defense had a measure of success against Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball and the Badgers’ offense that was led by quarterback Russell Wilson.
In the 28-17 loss, the Illini held the Badgers to their lowest point total of the season and the 285 yards Wisconsin earned was also a season low.
“We’re doing some of the old drills we did last year outside of practice and in practice to rejuvenate those things and kind of get back to knowing we are a top defense,” safety Steve Hull said. “Pursuit drills, mainly. We were very good at gang tackling last year, and we were at the beginning of this season, and I think that’s fallen off as of late. We’re definitely working on getting back and swarming the ball and suffocating the offense.”
In the three losses this season, the Illini are allowing an average of 43 points per game.
“We just have to get back to that mentality. I wanted to show the whole defense that just the first half of the game last year, we played very inspiring defense against them,” Buchanan said. “Guys were flying around, had energy, enthusiasm, and I just think we need to get back to that with this defense. That’s one thing we’ve been harping on this week. Just keep that enthusiasm no matter what happens throughout the game.”
Brown progressing. Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Wednesday that injured linebacker Jonathan Brown has practiced with the team this week after leaving Saturday’s loss to Penn State early in the second half with an ankle injury.
Beckman said Brown will be evaluated after today’s practice, but in the event he can’t go, true freshman Mike Svetina will start alongside classmate Mason Monheim, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week. Monheim has been starting since Week 3 for Houston Bates, who injured an ankle. Bates has played the last two weeks but still isn’t 100 percent.
“He’s still hampered with that ankle,” Beckman said. “You know how high-ankle sprains are, it’s just what he has. He’s been progressing but probably not as quickly as we’d like him to be.”
Versatile player commits. Darren Conklin saw Tyler White arrive at Plainwell (Mich.) High School red in the face one morning last winter.
The Plainwell football coach wanted to know what his senior tight end and defensive end was up to before taking part in the Trojans’ voluntary offseason weightlifting program that started at 6:30 a.m.
“He said, ‘I get a couple guys together and we go swimming before the lift,’” Conklin said. “They’re going over to the pool at 5:30 and swimming before we do our voluntary lifting. That’s the kind of kid he is.”
Beckman landed his 19th commit for the Class of 2013 after White accepted Illinois’ scholarship offer Monday night. Recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh was the lead recruiter for White’s services and took in a Plainwell game two weeks ago before meeting with White, who checks in at 6 feet, 6 inches and 240 pounds.
“He’s every bit of 6-6, which, a lot of times in recruiting, you see kids that are listed at 6-6, and they’re 6-4, whereas Tyler is definitely 6-6,” said Conklin, whose son, Jack, is a freshman offensive lineman at Michigan State. “He’s a great target in space. You can also motion him inside, and he can put a pretty good block on somebody, too. There’s some versatility there with him. He’s used to having the ball in his hands.”
Prior to his senior season, White was a tailback in Plainwell’s run-oriented I-formation offense. White missed most of last season — his first at the varsity level — after he suffered a torn ACL in Plainwell’s third game. The injury sidelined him the rest of football season and forced the power forward to miss all of basketball season before he returned to run the 200-meter dash and 400-meter dash in track.
“He’s used to having the ball in his hands, so it’s not like ... you’re going to have to teach him how to catch and run,” Conklin said. “I know they’ve talked about him as a defensive player as well. I think part of it depends physically on what they decide to do with him in the weightroom.”
Conklin said White added 40 pounds before his senior season, which has Plainwell at 5-1 heading into a key game Friday night at unbeaten Paw Paw (Mich.) High School. He said he figures White — a 4.0 student — could add 20 to 30 pounds if needed to play on the defensive side, most likely at end.
White had interest from Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Toledo, along with a host of other Mid-American Conference schools before Illinois offered. He also visited Pittsburgh recently.
“He went to a camp at Michigan State (this summer) and did really well up there, and just after that camp, (Michigan State) had another kid commit, but I think they would have been interested,” Conklin said. “They did some 7-on-7 at Spartan Stadium toward the end of camp, and out of maybe 20 plays that Tyler was in, the quarterback threw him the ball seven or eight times, so they were seeing him as a nice big target.”
White probably won’t fill up his senior season with gaudy offensive numbers. Plainwell is averaging more than 350 rushing yards a game this season.
“We don’t throw the ball around that much,” Conklin said. “He’s caught a few passes and we’ve done a few reverses with him, but not a lot as we’re still pretty straight ahead. He’s a force (blocking). We run an unbalanced line, so he’s essential there. He’s our biggest kid, and he’s at the point of attack. He’s been paving the way for just about everything with us.”