If football is a contest of brute force and collisions, it is also about speed ... racing from sideline to sideline, chasing 4.4-second receivers, darting in to sack the quarterback.
In virtually all sports, there’s a need for speed, Speed, SEC-level SPEEEED. Chasing the ball in soccer. Around the ring in discus throw. Covering the court in tennis. The revolution in quarterbacking.
And the quest for more speed within the Illini defense has been the primary focus of spring drills. Wes Lunt can’t complete enough passes to uplift a losing program if the defense again permits 35 points and 481 yards per game.
Every move this spring has revealed an attempt to upgrade speed by Tim Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks. This won’t be Michigan State, but it’ll be better than 2013. Beckman moved 207-pound senior Earnest Thomas, the team’s No. 2 tackler, from safety to STAR (combo LB-safety). Junior linebacker Mike Svetina lacked mobility at STAR last season and moved back inside. The emergence of sophomore D.J. Smoot has given the LEO position an extra burst (Smoot once competed at nationals in the 400 hurdles).
Al Seamonson, a Wisconsin grad who spent 2001-10 coaching linebackers at Maryland, handles the two hybrid positions, LEO and STAR. He spoke Wednesday:
“I think we probably lacked some speed as a team last year. I can tell, after being here a year, that we look faster as a defense. We have more athleticism on the field.
“Part of that is getting some young guys in the mix and getting some position players in the right spots. I feel good about our progress.”
The departure of Houston Bates, who intends to enter the medical field, forced Seamonson to start fresh at LEO, which is a fourth defensive lineman who may also drop into coverage.
“Not that Bates couldn’t run a little bit,” Seamonson said, “but Smoot runs really good, and (senior) D.J. Woods is fast on a straight line. And Earnest Thomas should have been playing STAR the whole time. He has taken to it very well. It fits his athletic ability and his background to a ‘T.’
“Smoot has been in the strength program less than a year, and he is a rare kid in that he’s already gained 30 pounds to the 265 range, so he has pretty good strength and a lot of natural girth and body strength to go with that speed. I’m excited about his progress. Smoot and D.J. Woods played some last year behind Bates.”
It is not blind optimism to say Seamonson has a quality veteran at STAR and a budding NFL prospect at LEO ... two of the most likely standouts in the entire defense.
Thomas, a fifth-year senior from Orchard Lake, Mich., had 101 tackles as a safety last season, 18 fewer than departed Jonathan Brown and four more than returning junior Mason Monheim. Thomas is similarly optimistic.
“The defense this year is moving around a lot faster,” he said. “Guys seem more comfortable, especially the freshmen who played last year and got into the fire.
“Our goal is to get the best 11 on the field. That’s why I’m at STAR right now. It’s one of the most important positions where you get to make a lot of plays. It gets me more in the mix. I played it earlier in my career, so it’s really not new to me.
“I still want to stay light at 207 because I have a lot of coverage responsibilities and a lot of man-to-man in the slot.
“Smoot has a lot of raw talent at the LEO. With him, it’s all about the mental side. The sky is the limit as far as him making plays.
“Looking at the defense overall, I think Caleb Day (sophomore from Hilliard, Ohio) has been doing the best job at corner, compared to last year. And Paul James had a good day at LEO today. James and Smoot are real versatile. As long as they lock in on their assignments, guys like Smoot, James and Day can make plays.”
Quickness on edges
Beckman supported the Thomas comments. Said the head coach Wednesday:
“We have more speed to contain the edges. At corner, Caleb Day is leading the (secondary) room in interceptions and has been as good as any this spring. He’ll definitely contend to start. He is bigger (6-1, 195) than some. He ran with the ones today.
“At safety, we’ve moved Zane Petty to the field side and Taylor Barton into the boundary. If we were going to make another move, it be would be Eaton Spence from corner to inside. He has the experience to play either.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.