Newcomers prominent part of 'green' defense
CHAMPAIGN — Names of defensive players, some listed three deep, are stacked upon each other on the white board inside Tim Banks’ office.
The name cards are broken up by positions, splayed out on the board how they would look on the field.
Familiar names like Jonathan Brown, Mason Monheim and Earnest Thomas are there.
So are newcomers like Eric Finney, Zane Petty and Darius Mosely.
“It’s my cheat sheet,” the Illinois second-year defensive coordinator said with a laugh.
The Illini will have to replace eight starters on defense, including three (Akeem Spence, Terry Hawthorne and Michael Buchanan) who were picked in April’s NFL draft.
Eight starters on a unit that ranked in the bottom half of nearly every defensive statistical category in the Big Ten.
“We’ll lack some experience, obviously,” Banks said. “I believe we’ll make up for it with enthusiasm and excitement.”
A healthy Brown (he’s getting there) would add to the excitement. Much like the development of projected starters Tim Kynard, Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe along the defensive line.
Monheim returns after a superb freshman season, while Houston Bates is slotted in as the starting Leo, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, following the dismissal of Darrius Caldwell in May.
Mike Svetina and junior college transfer Finney should help form the linebacker nucleus centered around Brown.
“He’s a guy who has some influence around here,” Banks said of the Memphis, Tenn., native, whose tackle totals were nearly cut in half (59 in 2012 compared with 108 in 2011) while he dealt with nagging leg and shoulder injuries. “Guys respect his athleticism and the things he brings to the table as a football player. He only helps us.”
Help is needed among newcomers in the secondary.
Thomas is the only starter back.
Taylor Barton, the defensive star of the spring game who red-shirted last season, Petty, Eaton Spence and V’Angelo Bentley are names fans should get accustomed to hearing in the defensive backfield.
Petty, another juco transfer, missed the spring with an injury, but Banks said he’s fully healthy, while Eaton Spence and Bentley played in a backup role at times last season.
“We’ll be extremely green back there, but at the same time they have a chance to make their mark,” Banks said. “They’ve got to start somewhere.”
Giving up 30 or more points in eight losses last season behooves the need to eliminate big plays and quick scores.
Forcing turnovers a year after Illinois only managed 11 takeaways is another task Banks wants to improve on during 2013.
And, of course, a better record.
“Do you want to lead the country in total defense? Sure, that’d be awesome,” Banks said. “I just want to win ballgames. That’s the bottom line. It’s not an ego thing. We just want to win. Whatever we need to do to win, that’s what we’re going to do as a defense to help our team be successful.”
Jason Heggemeyer said Illinois has had about 80 percent of its season ticket-holders renew their tickets for the 2013 season.
Heggemeyer, the assistant athletic director in charge of ticketing at Illinois, knows there are bound to be some unhappy customers. Especially coming off a 2-10 season like Illinois is.
Illinois has added Section 102 to its $99 season ticket package after adding Section 109 last year. A rough estimate for total number of ticket-holders who have bought that package is at about 13,000.
“We’ve expanded that, and we’ve had a lot of new people,” Heggemeyer said. “We could always sell more, but I think we renewed at a pretty good rate.”
A winning team makes Heggemeyer’s job easier.
Success lends itself to more fans in the Memorial Stadium stands.
Having two 11 a.m. kickoff times for the first two home games might detract from attendance, too.
“There’s still a great core of fans that we have,” he said. “We’ve had lean years before, but there’s a good group of people that want to support us. What we need to do is to reach out to the other group of people. We’re trying to make the gameday experience as best we can because we can’t control what happens on the field.”
Heggemeyer is glad to see the construction of the scoreboard going up in the south end of Memorial Stadium.
“When I leave my office and I’m walking outside, it catches my eye,” he said. “Those support structures they have in place right now just look monstrous.”
All told, Illinois wore nine different uniform combinations last season.
Might the number rise in 2013? Possibly.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman won’t disclose possible uniform or helmet revisions.
At least not yet.
“You don’t want to hurt the great identity and tradition of the program, but it has become more of a recruiting deal because they want to see if there are any changes,” Beckman said. “I know I want to and am going to do something for when we honor the military at the end of the year. I want to do something more than what we did last year.”
The most significant change Illinois sported last year came with its helmets.
Illinois only wore its traditional orange helmet with Illinois on both sides that features a white facemask once — in the season opener against Western Michigan.
The new orange helmets with blue facemasks and the matte blue ones with an orange Block I added to the possible mishmash of uniforms.
The most common uniform last year, which was worn three times, featured white pants, white jersey tops and the traditional orange helmet with a navy blue facemask.
Illinois dressed that way at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.
The number of wardrobe options Illinois had last year increased significantly from the 2011 season.
That squad only trotted out four different uniforms (white pants and blue top, white pants and orange top, orange pants and white top, and white pants and white top) and only wore one helmet (orange with white facemask) all season during Ron Zook’s final year in Champaign.
Internet postings in the past of possible alternate helmets, including a navy blue one that seems to resemble chief-like feathers with a chrome design, have only added speculation of what uniforms Illinois might wear in 2013.
“All the players loved them, no question,” Beckman said of the variety of uniforms displayed last year. “They’re 18- to 21-year-old kids. That’s what they like. It’s part of their generation now and part of what people look at as exciting.”
Not surprisingly, the preseason college football magazines haven’t treated Illinois kindly.
Sporting News, Athlon Sports and Lindy’s Sports all have Illinois last in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division.
Well, Lindy’s has a misprint that has Illinois last in the Legends Division, but the prognosticators aren’t giving Illinois much love.
Sporting News didn’t rate all 125 Division I football teams, but Athlon and Lindy’s did.
The two publications put Illinois in nearly identical spots, with Athlon slotting Illinois at No. 86 and Lindy’s pegging the Illini at No. 87.
Athlon lists Illinois having the league’s worst offensive line, defensive line and defensive backfield.
The highest positional ranking Illinois garnered was its linebackers, which came in at No. 8.
Lindy’s broke down each team with good news, bad news and its prediction. For Illinois, it looks like this:
— Good news: “Illinois is one of the few Big Ten teams with an experienced QB (Nathan Scheelhaase).”
— Bad news: “Illini fans have circled the Nov. 23 trip to West Lafayette ... and nothing else.”
— Prediction: “Poor Tim Beckman. Toledo probably looks like paradise right about now.”
Sporting News also didn’t mince words in taking a glance at Illinois.
“If Beckman didn’t know rebuilding the Illinois program was going to be a big job, he does now,” SN writes. “The Illini need playmakers, more help along the lines and quality depth.”
Beckman said he doesn’t pay too much heed to the magazines that started arriving on store shelves in late May.
“What are they saying about you when the postseason arrives is what we’re concerned about,” he said. “We’re only worried about one team at a time, and right now that’s Southern Illinois. We’re trying to progress and get ourselves better.”
Illinois will host a youth camp Monday through Wednesday for boys and girls about to enter second through sixth grade this upcoming school year.
The cost is $100, and registration takes place at 7:30 a.m. Monday at the Irwin Indoor Facility.
The camp lasts from 8 a.m. until noon and will feature activities at Irwin and at Memorial Stadium.
The team will hold a Lift for Life event from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.
Offensive lineman Corey Lewis is organizing the event, which debuted last summer.
The event will feature Illinois players split up into six teams competing in an eight-event strongman competition.
All proceeds from the event will be donated to the Acoustic Neuroma Association of America.
Acoustic neuroma is a rare, slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain.
The condition ended the career of former Illinois offensive lineman Andrew Carter.
Admission is $5 for adults, free for children 12 and under, and donations are welcome.
Autographs and photos are available at the conclusion of the event.