URBANA — The noise level from the Illinois defensive linemen grew as Friday’s training camp practice progressed. It peaked when sophomore defensive tackle Calvin Avery won 1-on-1 battle after 1-on-1 battle against a rotating cast of Illini offensive linemen.
Friday’s energy level, which carried over into the full team work, is what defensive line coach Austin Clarks wants from his group. And with most things defensive line-related this year, it circles back to what Bobby Roundtree gave them the past two seasons.
“We need a spark plug,” Clark said. “Bobby Roudntree made the defense. He controlled the group, so to speak, with his energy and his effort. You don’t get 66 tackles from a (defensive) end without a guy that runs to the football. We need that first and foremost.”
Then a pass rusher. Illinois needs that, too. The Illini finished the 2018 season with 21 sacks. Roundtree accounted for a third of them, and Owen Carney Jr. was the only other player with more than two with 2 1/2.
Pass rush is a priority for the Illinois defensive line this season, and the reality is the Illini simply need more of it.
“We did a good job — I would say the overall group — of adding weight and putting on muscle in the offseason,” Carney said. “I think we’re durable enough to really plug the Wisconsins and Iowas and a lot of teams that want to come downhill on us and think they can smash us in the mouth. We’re physical enough and we bulked up enough pounds to stop the runs early and get to third-and-longs so we can show what we’ve got.”
Carney will be under the spotlight as much as any Illinois defensive end this season. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Miami native will fill Roundtree’s spot on the Illini line after Roundtree suffered a severe spinal injury in mid-May. Carney missed spring ball with an injury and has been working back to a consistent level during camp.
“Not doing spring ball hurt him,” Clark said. “That’s the biggest thing with Owen. When a guy doesn’t do spring ball and most of the summer workouts, he going to be a little rusty when he comes out here. We have a whole crew of guys we didn’t have in the spring, so it’s taken a little bit.”
The expectations for Carney and the rest of the defensive ends aren’t simply higher because Roundtree won’t play. They might be mostly juniors, but they’ve all gotten experience the past two seasons. Now they’ve got to show it.
Part of that for Carney, Clark said, is being able to win more 1-on-1 matchups on the edge in pass rush situations.
“He’s a solid run defender at 255,” Clark said. “He uses his hands well and gets extension, but it’s being able to take the next step. Getting off blocks in the run game for tackles for loss, (and) when we get those chances on third-and-long, being able to loosen up and execute a pass rush move, have a plan and win that matchup.”
Illinois’ depth at defensive tackle could help Carney and Co. on the edge. The Illini can go more than three deep on the interior led by guys like Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver and Jamal Woods.
“Pass rush isn’t just the two defensive ends,” Clark said. “In my opinion, we’ve got to get more out of Jamal Woods and those guys inside. Having the interior guy that can win 1-on-1s is really going to help us.”
But Illinois’ edge rushers need to produce. Carney knows he has the experience and knowledge. Executing consistently, while helping provide that needed spark up front for the entire defense, is the next step.
“We pride ourselves on boosting one another up because we have to feed off of each other,” Carney said. “If one person makes a play, then that gets me excited. That motivates me to match his play. That’s what we’re going to do the whole season.
“It’s definitely a team effort. Bobby’s an energetic guy — very vibrant, uplifting — and he brought a lot of energy every day. It’s a team effort to make sure the whole D-line is full of energy and boosting each other up.”