CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois defense finished seventh in the nation in yards allowed in 2011. It had a national award-winning defensive end, who tied the school record for sacks in a season.
But something was missing. Something the new staff is determined to fix: turnovers.
Despite the presence of Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation with nine forced fumbles, the Illini finished just 59th in turnovers gained. Illinois was 95th in turnover margin.
Check the team's record in recent seasons and you will see a correlation between success and turnovers. When Illinois had a bounceback in 2010, going from three wins to seven, it was among the nation's Top 30 in both turnovers gained and turnover margin.
"At the end of the day, we're going to be judged on wins and losses," first-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "What's going to allow us to win a championship? That's the standard. And I think those kids are starting to understand that. We've got to be much better with our ability to take the football away."
Banks and the Illini aren't just talking about it. They are working on takeaways in practice. A lot. They are using special drills to reinforce the idea that they want the football back.
Banks isn't concentrating on what happened with the Illinois defense in 2011, good or bad. He wants to take the "New England Patriots approach," which means every year you start fresh.
"It's great to have experience coming back, guys who have played," Banks said. "We don't worry about the stats. What do we have to do to win more games?"
Forcing turnovers will help. If the Illinois offense is on the field, the opponents can't score on the defense.
"The biggest thing you are going to see out of this year, something we harp on every day, is getting more turnovers," defensive end Michael Buchanan said. "We chart and talk about the little things, like how many strip attempts we have each day."
Illinois has a potential takeaway machine at cornerback: Terry Hawthorne. He turned the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in Illinois' favor with an interception and touchdown sprint late in the third quarter.