Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Getting Defensive - Literally

It is often said that defense wins championships. Judging from the performance of the Fighting Illini defensive unit the past couple of seasons, that might stand the reason why you don't see too many championship trophies in the football office complex. The Illini will look somewhat different on defense this season, and leading the charge is Vic Koenning, who takes over the defensive coordinator duties and also coaches the defensive backs. Koenning comes from Kansas State, where he spent last season coaching the Wildcats as a co-defensive coordinator. Koenning has been a head coach in the past, taking the reins at Wyoming from 2000-2002. He inherits a defensive unit that gave up a lot of points in 2009, and at some times last season, it didn't matter how many points the offense scored because the defense would give up just as many, or in some cases, even more. Koenning has vowed to change the philosophy of the mindset that people have about the state of the defense.

Anchoring the defensive line will be returning starters Clay Nurse and Cory Liuget. Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, and Daryle Ballew will also see quite a bit of action up front. The linebacking corps has potential and want to get the reputation back as being known for Illinois producing great linebackers. Back after an injury last season is Butkus Award candidate Martez Wilson, who looks ready to resume his fine Illini career. Ian Thomas and Dustin Jefferson are also expected to contribute heavily, as is Justin Staples and Nate Palmer. Early in training camp, a true freshman has emerged at the linebacker spot in Jonathan Brown. Brown has looked very good thus far, and could very well challenge some of the veterans at the two-deep spot before the season begins. Senior Aaron Gress will also see significant playing time, as will freshman Austin Teitsma, who reminds me a little bit of Brit Miller.

Probably one of the deepest areas of the entire defense lies in the secondary, where there are several players vying for just a handful of positions. Returning starters Tavon Wilson and Nate Bussey anchor this group of players, while Terry Hawthorne and Supo Sanni also will be on the first team defense. Miami Thomas, who has battled injuries during his brief Illini career, hopes to make it an entire season healthy, but after having surgery on both knees the past couple of seasons, is a step slow and therefore, may not contribute as much as originally planned. Also expected in the mix are Joelil Thrash, Ashante Williams, and Travon Bellamy. Walt Aikens, who had some off the field issues that led to a suspension earlier in the summer, has been cleared to practice for the time being, pending the University investigation into the reason why he was suspended. Therefore, the jury is out whether or not he will be there to contend for any playing time. Junior college transfer Trulon Henry, who happens to be the older brother of NFL rookie Arrelious Benn, is expected to start at one of the corners, and even wears the same number as his brother. In talking with him before training camp, he actually wanted to wear number 6, but Chris James had that one already spoken for, so he turned the number upside down and went with 9. Also looking to fit into the mix are Patrick Nixon-Youman and late signee Fritz Rock. As deep as the secondary is, the main concern is whether or not these individuals will be able to make the plays to keep the offense in games.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you realize that the defense has been very porous over the previous seasons, and expectations are not very high as the team continues their Camp Rantoul session. Heading into the Missouri game each season, one wonders when they will turn it around and start the season on a winning note.

Coming next week, a look at the special teams units and a full report on the goings on at Camp Rantoul as the Fighting Illini wrap up training camp and head back to campus to begin classes for the 2010 Fall Semester.

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