Loren Tate: UI defense shows ray of hope
Today’s account will evolve into an evaluation of Illinois’ defensive line. You know, up front where the games are won and lost.
The subject is revealed in advance because, if your offseason football interest has dipped as low as attendance for the last game,
you may prefer to read about something else.
That’s understandable. Twenty straight Big Ten losses, following decades of erratic performances, will do that. The shaky 20-16 win at Purdue did little to change a deepening despondency. The environment has never been so thick with doubt.
But the Illini are back at it again with 15 spring sessions and will conduct their first padded scrimmage Saturday. Tossing in the towel is not an option. There are, at the least, rays of optimism streaming through the offensive unit in which, if healthy, coordinator Bill Cubit has some quality parts — four returning line starters, two pass-catching tight ends, a rifle-armed quarterback and a breakaway running back.
The health issue is raised here because QB Wes Lunt, speedback Josh Ferguson and tight end Jon Davis have been stymied by disabling injuries in the past. They’re bubbling with potential. So the task is to keep them upright.
With a seven-game home schedule of Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State, it is not unreasonable to project — whispering now, cup your ear — a December trip to ... aw, I can’t say it.
No worries on offense
My take is different from most. I see the offense taking care of itself. You can teach 300-pounders to pass-block, and Cubit’s 2013 aerial game demonstrated how clever schemes can produce 30-plus points (on seven occasions).
But defense can’t bank on trickery. And this unit got trampled last season. Discounting UI sacks, which barely exceeded one per game, UI rivals grossed more than 3,000 yards on the ground. The net was 2,863, most since the hapless Gary Moeller seasons of 1977 and 1978.
Until that changes, nothing good will happen. You can’t expect success when you rank 104th in points allowed (425). If the front four gets shredded, the linebackers can’t function and the cornerbacks can’t cover.
Pardon me, whispering again, but there are signs of hope up front. This is said with some trepidation because, for every Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence who have excelled, there is a tragic story like the ill-fated duo of Josh Brent and Jerry Brown, or promising commitments that didn’t pan out — Lendell Buckner, Chris Jones, Clint Tucker, Willie Beavers, Merrick Jackson and most recently, Vontrell Williams and Bryce Douglas. For every end like Whitney Mercilus or Michael Buchanan, we’ve seen Darrius Caldwell suspended or Houston Bates transfer.
Wait and see
It’s been a game of patchwork — no four-stars here — and line coach Greg Colby had to start last season from scratch. Spence turned pro. Buchanan graduated. Caldwell left. Colby was short-handed and outmanned.
As always, we now build hopes for those we’ve barely seen. Just as small sample sizes influence us to create high expectations for hardwood rookies Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, upcoming sophomores Jarrod Clements and Dawuane Smoot offer similar hope.
These two subbed as freshmen and could be on the verge of something. Both were plucked by recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh out of Ohio. Whispering again, Colby indicates they have All-Big Ten potential. Someday.
Smoot, who once competed at nationals in the 400-meter hurdles (and discus), arrived at 230 and now weighs 267. He’s in a three-way battle with senior DeJazz Woods and JC transfer Carroll Phillips for Bates’ old spot, called the “Leo.” As with the freshman cagers, it’s not a question of whether, it’s a case of when for Smoot.
Same with Clements. Golesh grabbed him when a prep injury may have caused others to hesitate.
“Chunky is over 280,” Colby said. “He just needs to become more disciplined.”
In all honesty, the UI’s front four won’t be championship level. Maybe not even first division. But depth is developing. Competition is building. It gets nasty up front and, if the unit isn’t two-deep, it can’t survive.
Here’s my analysis:
Leo — If Smoot can handle the physical aspect, his speed is ideal for a position that requires rushing and dropping. The older Woods and Phillips will challenge.
End — Of 11 positions, Tim Kynard’s vacated slot could be the biggest question mark. Floridian Paul James has returned after sitting out and is off to a slow start. But he could ultimately strengthen a shaky position in which the likely starter, Detroit junior Kenny Nelson, needs to toughen his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame. And Colby likes JC transfer Joe Fotu’s motor.
Tackle — Colby calls senior Austin Teitsma a “defensive leader who won’t allow anyone to beat him out.” Said Colby: “He is strong as a bull. I wish he could run a little better.” Clements and Robbie Bain are in the mix.
Tackle — When Jihad Ward, a 300-pounder who once played receiver, arrives from New York, he could shake up August competition. Meanwhile, much is expected of returning starter Teko Powell (6-2, 295 junior from Miami) when he is cleared for contact. Jake Howe ran No. 1 this week after starting six games last year. Abe Cajuste adds depth.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.