Tate | Devil in the defense for progressing UI football

 

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While we're waiting to see who'll line up at quarterback for Illinois in 2019, here are numbers that speak even louder.

Think Defense. With a capital D. Twelve Illini opponents in 2018 averaged 6.0 yards per rush. Only Oregon State and UConn finished below Illinois (508.3) in yards permitted per game. More than anything, that explains a 4-8 record.

Somehow, some way, the Illini must stay healthy and play a level of defense sufficient to — take a deep breath — defeat someone they're not supposed to. This has been an elusive goal throughout the past decade (42 wins, 80 losses).

"We weren't good enough last season," said Austin Clark, the Illini's second-year defensive line coach, "and we're harping on it. We need to get stronger. We need to get off blocks and knock people back in the run game. That's our emphasis."

The business of football starts up front. Lovie Smith, as head coach and defensive coordinator, appears to have a set unit of veteran linebackers and, after moving Tony Adams to safety, a proven foursome in the secondary. They have particularly high hopes for the cornerback duo of Quan Martin and Nate Hobbs.

Frontlines

But the other seven positions don't matter if the front four can't nullify the angry 300-pound troops on the other side. Michigan won't be bashful that way, nor Wisconsin in those back-to-back games in mid-October. Nor Michigan State and Iowa in chilly November.

You get the point. You get a mental picture when you think of those Big Ten roughnecks. They are up-front maulers. Michigan was No. 2 in the nation in total defense last season, Iowa No. 7, Michigan State No. 10 and Wisconsin, better known for a crushing ground attack, No. 29.

"Injuries happen, so what we need up front is a flock of guys ... 12 to 15 that we can count on," Clark said. "And that's what we'll have by the time we start."

Better shape

The challenging assignment begins with the numbing realization that the anticipated No. 1 player on the unit won't be here. The severe spinal injury sustained by Bobby Roundtree in a boat-swim accident is so serious that it is almost irreverent to discuss his replacement. But it must be faced.

Without question, the front four situation is in much better shape than in 2017 when Roundtree, Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney enrolled as "must-use" defensive ends.

Encouraging for the future, UI recruiters connected on two strongside ends from the St. Louis area who rank near the top of the incoming class: Keith Randolph (6-5, 250) and Moses Okpala (6-7, 250). Of more immediate importance, the Illini will be joined on campus any day by Southern Cal transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr. (6-3, 240), a former prep blue chipper now fully recovered from hip surgery.

Carney and Gay, absent from spring drills along with tackle Kenyon Jackson, have full clearance as they train this summer.

"Gay is the heaviest he's been (up from 215) and he needs to sustain it," Clark said. "We have some quick-twitch athletes, and we may be able to use different units (according to down and distance)."

Choices aplenty

June is a time when two things happen. Coaches lose players (you've heard about the portal) they don't expect to lose. And they go overboard on the strength gains of those who return.

Clark is particularly optimistic about Jamal Woods and Lere Oladipo, two mobile huskies whose 2018 season was cut short. Woods, overlooked by the Alabama powerhouse in his home state, is poised to challenge seniors Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver and touted sophomore Calvin Avery in the interior. Like Woods, Oladipo could play end or tackle.

"Woods started early last year and was defensive MVP against Western Illinois before he was hurt," said Clark. "He's back now with a different body and a different mindset."

So, if you're counting, Clark will have 15-plus candidates for the front four, and the majority have varsity experience. Questions remain: Have they improved? Are they good enough? Can they shut down rushers that averaged 6.0 yards per carry? And without Roundtree (121 / 2 tackles for loss last season), can they apply pressure on rival quarterbacks who completed 63.4 percent of their passes in 2018?

This is Lovie Smith's side of the ball. He can't be successful as head coach if, as defensive coordinator, his athletes can't disrupt the opposition at the line of scrimmage.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.