Camp Rantoul notes: Defense impressing coaches, players
RANTOUL — Walking off the Memorial Stadium turf last week, Alex Hill praised the Illinois defense.
Unprompted, no less.
“I tell you what, man, our defense has been getting after us and showing us some things,” the Illinois offensive lineman said. “They’re making us better, and we love it. They’ve really improved over this summer and offseason.”
Walking off the grass practice fields Thursday night at Camp Rantoul, Hill had similar thoughts.
“The competition here this year is just amazing,” Hill said. “Each play, you just never know who is going to come out on top. It builds confidence in us knowing we can count on (the defense). To see it on the practice field, that’s when you build your resume for the season.”
The weak link of last year’s team doesn’t want the same trait describing the unit this fall. At various points during the Illini’s stay in Rantoul, the first-team defense has outplayed the first-team offense. That hardly happened last season.
“Our defense is playing pretty good right now,” UI coach Tim Beckman said. “They’re older, they’re more experienced and they’re playing better. We’re not facing wide receivers who have been back, but I’m proud of the way we’ve progressed.”
Linebackers making progress
Some slight tweaks happened this offseason, with most of the moves pertaining to the linebackers. Earnest Thomas has switched to STAR and Mason Monheim to weakside linebacker. The emergence of T.J. Neal at middle linebacker has helped expedite the process.
“(Neal) has been working his butt off, on the field and off the field,” Monheim said. “He hasn’t played a ton of downs, but the way he works and the way he walks around, he has taken more of a leadership role.”
The two leading returning tacklers for Illinois are at linebacker in Thomas (101 tackles) and Monheim (97 tackles).
“That is going to be a big nucleus for us leading this defense,” Thomas said. “The guys up front got better all spring, and now that’s carrying over. We do have the talent.”
The multitude of experience — Thomas and Monheim have a combined 43 starts each of the last two seasons — is a bonus, according to defensive coordinator Tim Banks, that will have an effect on the rest of the defense.
“From a confidence standpoint, the kids won’t be in awe,” Banks said. “They kind of know what to expect, especially those big games that we play on the road. They’ve already been in some of those venues. They’re feeling confident, and they’re playing fast.”
Illinois is planning to use the pool at the Hap Parker Family Aquatic Center at some point Sunday afternoon. It’s an excursion the Illini look forward to each year at Camp Rantoul.
“I’m definitely going to win the belly-flop contest,” Hill said. “I’m the reigning champion from last year, so I’ll just have fun with it.”
Tight end Matt LaCosse is hoping inclement weather holds off Sunday.
“I frequently check weather in Rantoul,” LaCosse said. “I heard it’s going to be cloudy and rainy, but as long as there’s no lightning, because I’m afraid of storms, I’ll be at the pool enjoying myself.”
Illinois goes through two practices today at 9 a.m. and 4:15 p.m., its last two of the week in Rantoul. The team will conduct a closed scrimmage Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. Illinois will head back to the Quarters Inn in Rantoul after the scrimmage, with a day off scheduled for Sunday before closing camp in Rantoul on Monday with practices at 10:45 a.m. and 5 p.m.