Tate: Defending UI's defense
Weight training during eight months of the football offseason can bring enormous physical gains for hard-working athletes in the 18, 19 and 20 age range.
We thank former Illini All-American Martin O’Donnell for making this upbeat point.
And here’s a second hypothesis to rouse the UI’s gaggle of Doubting Thomases.
Athletes that perform in concert can defeat superior individuals responding in a non-cohesive manner.
Before turning to UI linebacking star Jonathan Brown for an explanation of this phenomenon, we are reminded the 2011 Illini won the first six games, lost tight duels with Ohio State (17-7) and Penn State (10-7) as the offense sputtered and injuries crept in, and then rebounded for a 20-14 bowl victory against UCLA.
With so many defensive returnees from that 7-6 season, the defense figured to be the team’s bulwark. It wasn’t. Some fans still believe scuttlebutt that the returnees never fully bought in to the new regime. The Illini permitted 45 or more points on five occasions during a 2-10 sleepwalk.
And before you insist a lack of talent was the primary reason for 2012’s defensive collapse, how do we explain the fact that seven members of that defensive unit — Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster, Michael Buchanan, Justin Staples, Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Ashante Williams — were in NFL camps last week? Seven!
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Brown didn’t play at the Rantoul scrimmage when the UI defense was overrun by an impressive combination of passes and thrusts. The defense was not impressive. Will O’Donnell’s premise hold true for these strikingly youthful defenders?
“We’re making strides with a lot of young guys now,” said Brown, a Memphis product whose father (Rod) played for former UI coordinator Vic Koenning. “We’re using the frustration of last season to get better this season. We were set back by some injuries last year and we just couldn’t put it together. We were learning something new and we didn’t get a good grasp of it. Sometimes transition is hard.”
After the collapse at Arizona State on Sept. 8, several regulars indicated there had been confusion receiving the signals from the sideline. Everybody was not on the same page. Two weeks later, an embarrassing 52-24 home loss to Louisiana Tech led to a season of chaos. Tell me, Jonathan, was it a lack of teamwork?
“You can say that. I can’t. We were doing something different (defensively), and injuries played a part,” he said. “But we’re in our second year of the system now, and you can see the improvement. We have better communication and we’re moving better as a unit. I’m doing everything possible to bring the new guys along with me.”
Holes to fill
OK, but is the talent anywhere near last year? One NFL scout visited in the spring and left saying “there’s no one here that I would recommend to my director of player personnel.”
This was, of course, when Brown and tight end Jon Davis were sitting out (as they were Monday), and before Aaron Bailey and Wes Lunt arrived.
Based on last year, the current linebacking corps meets specifications. Brown has been nominated for postseason awards, Mason Monheim led Big Ten freshmen in tackles (86) and classmate Mike Svetina made five starts. But what about the secondary, where then-freshman Earnest Thomas got nine starts at safety chiefly to fill an injury need? Said coordinator Tim Banks:
“We’re not as big in the secondary but we’re comparable speedwise. It’s a work in progress. We’re trying to gain some consistency.”
At the corners where Hawthorne and Green were multi-year staples, Eaton Spence got two starts and V’Angelo Bentley flashed promise in the spring. Both are 180-pound sophomores. Rookie Jaylen Dunlap had an interception Monday night and receives almost daily plaudits from Beckman, who spends much of his practice time working to rebuild the secondary.
Brown and end Tim Kynard are the only seniors in the defensive lineup. Assuming Svetina stays at outside backer for the injured Eric Finney, there’ll be four juniors, four sophomores and a redshirt freshman starting.
Light at end of tunnel
The backup group is scary-young with raw freshmen like DBs Dunlap, Darius Mosley and Caleb Day and sophomore linemen like Teko Powell and Kenny Nelson in key roles. The two-deep defensive alignment is one of the 10 youngest in the country, raising the question whether they’ll be sufficiently physical at this stage of their development. Of 10 scholarship freshmen on the defensive side, only Miami lineman Paul James has turned 19 (this month), and neither Dunlap nor Bryce Douglas passes 17 until later this month.
That said, Beckman and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh appear to have located some untapped gems. One such could be 275-pound Jarrod Clements, who coach Greg Colby calls “a steal.” Colby says the Dayton product is “most advanced among his new linemen. We recruited him as an inside guy, but he’s good on the edge and has the movement to be a natural pass rusher.”
Back to O’Donnell. Bodies can develop dramatically during this stage in their careers.
Couple this with teamwork, and improvement can follow. We didn’t see it at the Camp Rantoul scrimmage on defense, but it’s early and, in this case, the Illini offense has more experience and is ahead of schedule.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org