EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — One game, a trend does not make. Probably not even two.
But combine what Illinois football has done defensively in terms of scheme the first two games of the 2019 season, along with what transpired during both spring practices and fall training camp, and it’s clear to see Illini coach Lovie Smith has gone back to basics.
Or, more appropriately, gone back to his base 4-3 scheme after playing a high percentage of nickel packages in 2018. The results have been a bit mixed in terms of run-pass split — solid for the former, not so much for the latter — but Illinois is 2-0 after picking up its first nonconference road win in a dozen years with a 31-23 victory on Saturday at UConn.
That the Illini needed that 24-point second quarter to escape out of a 13-0 hole tempered the emotions some.
As apparent as the defensive style switch might be, Smith has chosen not to dive in too deeply in explaining the reversion in scheme.
“I don’t want to talk too much in detail on what we do, but we try to get the best 11 players on the football field,” Smith said. “Sometimes when you have flexibility at some position, it allows you to keep the best 11.”
The scheme change this offseason is somewhat tied to personnel. Redshirt junior linebacker Milo Eifler is eligible after sitting out the 2018 season following his transfer from Washington, and Illinois added more depth to its linebacker room by moving Delano Ware from safety. The 6-foot, 215-pound sophomore out of Richmond, Calif., made five of his eight starts last season at nickelback.
“You start with your best 11, and in an ideal world, you want to keep them on the field as much as possible,” Smith said, mentioning both Eifler and safety Tony Adams, who started his Illinois career as a cornerback. “(Adams is) a player that can play the slot from time to time. A guy like Milo Eifler allows us to do that, since he can guard. We feel very comfortable with him matching up on a tight end man-to-man, as we do with Jake Hansen. We have some players with position flexibility that allow us to do a few things.”
The switch to a more regular base 4-3 defensive package affects the Illinois linebackers the most, of course, given there’s three on the field now at all times. It’s allowed the Illini to display a new look, and their three starters — Eifler, Hansen and Dele Harding — have all made plays. They have a combined 36 tackles, 4 1 / 2 tackles for loss, two interceptions and Hansen’s’ forced fumble and recovery from the Akron game.
“I think you add a lot of athleticism with Milo and Delano Ware,” Hansen said. “Delano making his transition to linebacker, he’s a great coverage guy. Milo can do it all. Dele Harding is also a great linebacker and has some experience playing for us at (middle linebacker). We definitely complement each other.”
Smith has taken the positional flexibility of his outside linebackers to deal with the space created by the spread offenses the Illinois defense faces. The emphasis on playing more 4-3 has only further illustrated what Smith is looking for when he recruits outside linebackers.
“Our profile for our linebackers is big, strong safeties,” Smith said, which makes sense given one of the best linebackers to ever play for him — Brian Urlacher with the Chicago Bears — was recruited as a defensive back out of high school and played a combo safety-linebacker role at New Mexico.
“Guys that are going to get a little bit bigger that in the open field can make tackles and play coverage and all those things,” Smith continued about what he now wants in linebackers. “A lot of our players fit that profile.”
CHAMPAIGN — Dele Harding is running out of time, and he hopes to make the best of what’s left.
Harding might be more of a traditional middle linebacker — stronger against the run and as a pass rusher in the increased number of blitzes Smith is also using this season — but he did come up with a game-clinching interception against UConn late in the fourth quarter. The senior out of Elkton, Md., also has a unique vantage point from the middle of the Illinois defense, and he sees improvement.
“Most definitely,” he said. “Up front, those guys are doing a great job keeping the blockers off of me and the linebackers period. Even in passing, those guys are doing a great job rushing. We knew what we left off last year in terms of (ranking No. 128) defensively. Every game is something to prove.”