Defense holds key for Illini

Defense holds key for Illini

CHICAGO — Austin Teitsma’s face takes on an expression only the Illinois defensive tackle can make.

Check out the front page of this past Saturday’s sports section in The News-Gazette for further evidence.

And that’s just when Teitsma discussed Jihad Ward.

“He’s a ginormous man,” Teitsma said of the 6-foot-6, 295-pound junior college defensive lineman Illinois signed in February who is expected to help right away. “He’s picking up the plays real quick, which is awesome. I’m really excited to see what he’s going to have to offer.”

Talking about last year’s Illinois defense, exciting wasn’t the word brought up often. Or hardly at all.

More like confused. Deflated. Outmatched. Porous.

Finishing last in the Big Ten in stopping the run and second to last in containing the pass drudges up unflattering descriptions of defensive coordinator Tim Banks’ unit during the 2013 season.

When discussing the Illini defense the first two years of the Tim Beckman era, Illinois coaches and players have had to go on the defensive. It’s a far cry from what Illinois put together in 2011 with the nation’s seventh-best defense.

Beckman was blunt when asked if Banks had a Big Ten-caliber defense to work with last year.

“We didn’t,” the Illinois coach said Tuesday morning during the final day of Big Ten Media Days. “In fairness to Coach Banks, when you’re playing a young defense ... you see what Michigan State does with a bunch of seniors and being involved in that defense for four straight years, heck, it’s more simplified, and they understand it.”

Beckman may say Illinois is a young defense at times this fall. But if Beckman makes the same declaration in 2014 — especially since eight starters return, several reserves who saw extensive time last season are back and a handful of junior college players expected to contribute — it may ring a bit hollow.

“You looked out there (last season), and you had some young football players where you don’t want to put a whole lot on their plate,” Beckman said. “Then it would be even worse. We didn’t put a whole bunch there because we really couldn’t. Now, after going through spring ball, you can do a little bit more.”

Giving up big plays was common last year. A solid drive by the Illinois offense was often followed up by a quick scoring drive by the opponent.

“As an offense, we’re on the sidelines, so there’s not really much we can do,” Illinois tight end Jon Davis said. “We feel like we’ve got to score when we’re out there. We hope (the defense does) what they can do, but when we’re out there, we’ve got to produce.”

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian did last year. The clear-cut starter for the Wildcats this fall threw for a career-high 414 yards. No other quarterback topped that mark against Illinois last season.

“Illinois has always had an athletic defense that’s pretty fast,” Siemian said. “Internally, it was a chance for us to let it rip. It worked out for us.”

Whether the Illinois defense will work and appear more in sync this season is the biggest concern facing Illinois. One Teitsma wants to show is just preseason worry. Nothing more.

“The intensity is turned up,” Teitsma said. “We didn’t have the greatest season last year. We all have chips on our shoulders this year. We’re trying to prove ourselves.”

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