No cutting corners for Illini
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois hasn’t exactly produced copious amounts of interceptions from its cornerbacks recently.
V’Angelo Bentley had one in 2013.
Terry Hawthorne had one in 2012.
Those are two of the 10 picks the Illini have had in the last two seasons.
Not exactly inspiring numbers.
Needless to say, Bentley and his fellow cornerbacks have ample motivation to increase those numbers this fall.
“Pressure makes diamonds,” Bentley said. “I don’t feel it’s pressure as much as we’ve got to perform. We came here for a reason. Everybody can perform at this level. You’ve just got to go out and do it.”
Bentley’s lone interception last year came at Purdue.
In the second-to-last game of the season.
Hawthorne’s interception in 2012 came at Northwestern. In the season finale.
Illinois can’t count a former Jim Thorpe Award winner among its former players — six Big Ten players have won the honor since it was established for the top defensive back in 1986 — but it does boast the NCAA’s career leader in interceptions in the late Al Brosky.
Brosky intercepted 30 passes in three seasons with the Illini from 1950 to ’52.
Still, the recent spate of Illinois cornerbacks — Vontae Davis and Eugene Wilson aside — doesn’t conjure up images of greatness.
Bentley wants to change that perception.
“I feel like we’re all trying to make each other better,” he said. “I can see a lot of maturity in our room. When we meet with the safeties, we’re on the same page now. It’s a better feel. We’re contesting a lot more passes and having a swagger about ourselves. We don’t want receivers to catch anything.”
Receivers, tight ends and running backs caught plenty against Illinois last year.
The Illini ranked ninth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed (242.9) and 81st in the country.
“We weren’t playing fast enough to our abilities,” Bentley said. “We all have the talent, but at this level it’s so much more mental and knowing where to be and what the offense is trying to do. That can slow you down. The coaches did a great job this spring of reducing our defense in spots, and it allows us to see different things that we weren’t seeing last year and to play faster.”
Look around at all the position groups Illinois has, and cornerback is where the depth chart has just that. The most depth.
Bentley and Eaton Spence are expected to start for a second consecutive year.
Just don’t tell that to sophomores Caleb Day, Jaylen Dunlap and Darius Mosely.
The trio all saw the field for extended stretches last fall as true freshmen, showing talent on certain plays and inexperience on others. Illinois coach Tim Beckman — who coaches the corners — is confident all the young talent Illinois has garnered since he took the job will develop into veteran talent this season.
“When I walk into that meeting room, there is some talent in that corner meeting room,” Beckman said. “We’ve done a great job of recruiting corners.”
Even if Day, Dunlap and Mosely can’t beat out Spence and Bentley, Bentley anticipates plenty of contributions from them in different schemes and packages this season.
“Caleb is a tremendous athlete,” Bentley said. “Mosely came in last year making plays during camp and in game-time situations. Dunlap is like our Richard Sherman. He’s a very confident guy, and he brings even more confidence to everyone. He’s a guy that wants to tell a receiver, you’re not going to catch nothing today, and if you go on the other side, you’re still not going to catch anything. He’s been great in developing our identity.”
What, exactly, do the Illini cornerbacks want their identity to revolve around?
“We want to make sure another team knows when they come in Memorial Stadium that it’s going to be a fight all game,” Bentley said. “When we go into the Horseshoe in Columbus or any other stadium across the country, we want them to know it’s going to be a battle.”