Illini defense the program's strength

John Supinie

A reputation doesn't last long in college football.

If the guys on the Illinois defense that ranked seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State disagree, they need to talk with defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

"You're a great coach today, and you stink tomorrow,'' Banks said. "It's the same thing with the players.

"It's based on what they do this year to determine how good they are, but I'm excited about them.''

While the bulk of the scrutiny last week at Camp Rantoul focused on uncertainty on offense and a search for capable playmakers and blockers, the defense appeared set. Banks took over a unit rebuilt by former coordinator Vic Koenning, who reshaped the Illini defense from 91st in 2009 to last year's lofty mark.

"I challenged them to be No. 1,'' said Illini coach Tim Beckman, a former defensive coordinator. "They weren't the best in the Big Ten yet.''

Defensive end Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence, linebacker Jonathan Brown and cornerback Terry Hawthorne will likely be playing on Sundays next fall. If the defense overall isn't the Illini's greatest strength heading into the season, then it's the defensive line.

Prior to the season opener against Western Michigan on Sept. 1, the greatest concern for Banks is building some depth and creating more turnovers. Otherwise, it's just hard to hold back the enthusiasm.

"The pieces are in place,'' said defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the holdover from the previous staff. "It can be a lot similar as far as what we accomplished last year.''

The Illini lost sackmaster Whitney Mercilus to the NFL, but it's hard for offenses to gameplan against a unit loaded with so many superior players.

"You look at all the different points where we have guys who can dominate,'' said Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. "That's what makes it tough. You have to be deep on defense, but we have four players who are dominant at what they do. You can't run away from four players.''

Buchanan was a second-team all-Big Ten pick last season after getting 7.5 sacks. Spence creates havoc at the point of attack. Brown is "football junkie'' who has great instincts partly because of his hard work, Banks said. Hawthorne will apparently also get time at wide receiver, a position of great concern.

With a few exceptions, the lineup appears settled. Defensive ends Justin Staples and Tim Kynard work at the position opposite Buchanan. Kynard, who made a big impression in the spring, is better against the run. Staples, who must sit the first game after a DUI arrest, is a pass rusher.

At safety, senior Supo Sanni appears set, but sophomore Earnest Thomas is challenging the often-injured Steve Hull at the other spot.

Banks' first priority is building some depth to avoid wearing down late in the season.

"Can we have 15, 16 or 17 guys within our rotations playing a lot of football?'' Banks said. "You have to have that. Asking Buchanan to play 90 snaps from the game one to the championship game is fool's gold. We have to develop guys behind him.''

The scheme is roughly the same, but the terminology is different. The big challenge from Banks to his defense is creating more turnovers. The Illini were tied for 59th last season by creating 22 turnovers last season.

"We weren't very efficient last year,'' Buchanan said. "It's one of those things (Banks) wants to bring to the core group of guys.

"He calls it, 'Feeding the monster.' We want to keep giving the offense a chance to score.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.