Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Illinois Fighting Illini, Part 3, Defense
I began by taking a broad overview of the Illinois program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Illini will do this season.
Last week, I scanned at the 2012 Illinois offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Illinois defense.
2011 scoring defense: 19.6 PPG (fifth in the conference)
Total defense: 286.2 YPG (second)
Rushing defense: 3.13 YPC (second)
Passing efficiency allowed: 117.91 (third)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 7.0
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Fifth (2007, 2010, 2011)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 11 (2011)
Returning starters: DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Jonathan Brown, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green, SS Supo Sanni, S Steve Hull
Open positions: DE, LB
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: moderate
When Tim Beckman took the Fighting Illini head coaching job, one of the first things he did was attempt to retain defensive coordinator (DC) Vic Koenning.
One could hardly blame Beckman, given that Koenning took 2009's 96th-ranked Illinois scoring defense, and turned it into the 48th-ranked defense in 2010 and No. 15 in 2011.
Nevertheless, Koenning (per The Chicago Sun Times) felt "it was best to explore other opportunities."
This led to the hiring of Tim Banks, the Cincinnati Bearcats' co-DC of the last two years, and before that, the Central Michigan DC between 2007-2009.
Banks' defenses have been ranked (from 2011 backward, with the backslash indicating a switch in teams) Nos. 20, 68/ 17, 90 and 110.
As is evident, his defenses have improved every year he called the plays.
Also, the one holdover from Ron Zook's staff was defensive line coach, Keith Gilmore, who had been with Zook since 2009. This was a good move, as three of Gilmore's proteges have been drafted—two in the first round.
Banks' and Gilmore's presence bodes well for the Illini defense, though the head coach's ability to coach up the group, despite his defensive background, is still in question.
In three years at Toledo, his D's never ranked above ninth in the MAC. Last season, his Rockets let up 63 points two games in a row—to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, both top-25 scoring offenses.
As for the difference between Zook's/Koenning's defense and Beckman's/Bank's, the base D will still be 4-3.
Zook/Koenning ran an ultra-aggressive scheme. The linemen looked to penetrate, while the linebackers blitzed a ton. Due to this, Illinois had the seventh-most tackles for loss in the nation and tied for the sixth-most sacks.
Beckman and Banks aren't nearly as aggressive.
According to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, "Tim Banks' defensive scheme is similar to what Koenning ran, although the linebackers are dropping into coverage a little more," though I would argue this is an understatement.
Last season, the Illini boasted three of the conference's top 10 in tackles-for-loss, including the top two.
In short, under Zook, the Illini wanted their front seven in the offensive backfield.
Beckman and Banks will not have a "conservative" scheme, though moderate is a fair description.
The linemen will have a greater focus on gap responsibility, while the linebackers will flow to the ball-carrier, and, as Rittenberg said, drop "into coverage a little more."
Moreover, due to the Illini's up-tempo offense, the defense will be expected to spend a lot of time on the field. According to Banks (via ESPN), "you need to play a lot of guys...[because the Illini are] going to play a lot of snaps."
In summation, this defense won't be as aggressive as it was under Zook, but it also won't be as conservative as, for example, Iowa under Kirk Ferentz or Ohio State under Jim Tressel. It will rotate a lot of players, each one of who will have to maintain his responsibility.
Two Illini defensive linemen—Whitney Mercilus in 2012 and Corey Liuget in 2011—have been drafted in the first round of the last two NFL drafts.
Senior Michael Buchanan will try to make it three in a row. He is currently listed as a borderline first- or second-round pick by WalterFootball.com.
He will try to follow up a strong junior year—64 tackles, 13.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks—with an even bigger senior year.
If the spring game is any indication, he is ready. According to StLouisToday.com, he had 11 tackles and four sacks in the exhibition. It is true that he was matched up against a new left tackle, but four sacks is nothing to turn your nose up at under any conditions.
The problem is, just after the spring game (via the Peoria Journal Star), Buchanan got into a bar fight which left him with a broken jaw. Regarding disciplinary actions, there are still extenuating details to be worked out, and Beckman is "hopeful and expect[s] to have him back for (preseason) camp.’’
Junior defensive tackle Akeem Spence is a two-year starter and a space eater.
Last year, he had the most tackles of any Big Ten defensive lineman with 69. According to teammate and veteran center Graham Pocic (via ESPN), Spence's "explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size. He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."
This year, he is poised to have a breakout year and will vie for all-conference honors.
Meanwhile, defensive tackle Glenn Foster and end Justin Staples—both seniors—are limited but experienced and can be potent when they are surrounded by playmakers, which they are.
Finally, sophomore Jake Howe and junior Tim Kynard will get a good deal of playing time off the bench.
Unfortunately, Illinois junior linebacker Jonathan Brown is known more for his cheap shot of Northwestern tackle Patrick Ward than from his play on the field.
That is a shame, because last season, Brown was one of the surprise players of the year. He totaled 108 tackles, one interception, 19.5 tackles-for-loss and six sacks.
According to Brown via ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, "That was me being young, not thinking and being caught up in the moment. It brought my focus into what is really going on. ... It's still a maturing process."
This year, it is likely Brown will move from the weak side to the middle, where he will have the opportunity to make more plays. It remains to be seen how he'll fit into Beckford's defense, as Zook's aggressive defense suited Brown perfectly.
Either way, it is evident that he is a top-notch player to build a defense around.
As for the other linebackers, Houston Bates grabbed two starts as a true freshman in 2011. The Louisiana native chose Illinois over LSU, so he's got an impressive pedigree. He will probably man the weak side.
Meanwhile, Ashante Williams is a veteran and will likely be the starting strong-side backer.
It is all unproven sophomores and freshmen after the top three.
Overall, there is a lot of upside with this bunch, but also a lot to prove and no established depth.
Last season, the Illini had the third-best pass defense in the Big Ten.
This season, with the loss of only one key contributor, it will once again be among the best.
Senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne has shown a great deal of promise from the time he stepped onto the field as a true freshman. He battled injuries throughout his career, but a big senior season will spring him onto NFL scouts' radars.
Fellow senior Justin Green subbed for an injured Hawthorne in 2010, but lost the job to him last season. He did grab four starts in 2011 and had the 11th-most tackles on the team, so he's not rusty. He will move back into the full-time starting gig in 2012.
Seniors Suppo Sani and Patrick Nixon-Youman along with junior Steve Hull make for one of the better trio of safeties in the conference.
Also, senior Jack Ramsey is versatile, and took snaps at both receiver and cornerback in spring practices. Though he is still listed as a second-team defensive back, it will be tough to keep him off the field.
Lastly, Northern Illinois safety Tommy Davis recently transferred to the Illini (per ESPN), and will be eligible to play this year. Though his talents are more valuable to Illinois' special teams, and specifically the return squads, he does add one more experienced defensive back to the roster.
Expect Beckman to employ a lot of five and six defensive back looks, due to a surplus at the position.
Last season, the Illini had the 15th-ranked scoring defense in the nation. One could argue that ranking didn't to the unit justice when one considers that it was the seventh-ranked total defense.
Much of the reason for this disparity had to do with the special teams—which were not good, particularly the punting squad—and the offense, which tied for 104th in the country in turnovers lost.
In short, giving up bad field position consistently put the defense in a bad position.
I don't expect the 2012 offense to be as careless as the 2011 version, though the jury is still out on the special teams.
This season's defense will take a small step back, because of the loss of Whitney Mercilus and a slightly new defensive scheme.
It will still be a top-25 scoring defense, and may wind up being ranked around No. 15 for the second year in a row. However, the total defense will not break the top 10.
Still, top 25 is nothing to sneeze at.
I will also note that if the defense doesn't take to Beckman and Bank's less aggressive schemes, there is a possibility that it could take a substantial step back; nonetheless, I don't expect that to happen.
Coming next Wednesday, an overview and breakdown of Illinois' specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Illini will finish the 2012 season.
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