Defense scores confidence, makeover

By Lisa Koulias

After the Illinois football team put up a 1-11 season last fall, one thing was certain. Something had to change.

First thing on the list: Fix a defense that allowed an average of 33.2 points a game.

Head coach Ron Turner promoted Mike Mallory to defensive coordinator. Last season, Mallory coached linebackers after he had coached safeties for two years.

“It was a position that I had before,” Mallory said of his job as defensive coordinator. “So it’s not a new position for me. I feel very comfortable with it. I like the guys and the defensive staff. We work well together.”

To boost up a struggling defensive line, Mallory recruited receiver Kelvin Hayden who switched to cornerback in the spring after he led the Illini offense in receiving last season with 592 yards.

“I think he has done a good job (switching to defense),” Mallory said. “He’s a good athlete and a good competitor and its important to him. Everyday he goes out and keeps getting better.”

“I feel that if it’s going to help the team out then fine,” Hayden said. “It’s still football. I just want to go out there and work hard.”

Also making the switch from offense to defense is Morris Virgil, who will start at strong safety.

“He has a great motor, for one,” Mallory said. “He’s very strong and he just plays hard. He is an active guy out on the edge and he has been a very pleasant surprise for us. We always knew he had great work ethic. It’s very important to him and he’s going to play – he’s going to really help us.”

The Illini also have several returning players that will help these new guys out, including defensive end Mike O’Brien, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL.

Also returning is Scott Moss at the other end and Ryan Matha at tackle.

Senior linebacker Matt Sinclair, the team’s leading tackler, is moving from inside to outside this fall. Last season Sinclair totaled 129 tackles and four sacks as he was given honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

Despite the wealth of talent on his team and the progress he has seen at Camp Rantoul, Mallory realizes the defense still has some work to do.

“There are some things we need to continue (to work on),” Mallory said. “We need to make plays. We are in the position to make some plays and we have to do that. We have to learn how to finish on some things. Like tackling, we are better but we aren’t where we need to be.

“I saw some good things,” he said. “Guys are giving a good effort and when we saw breakdowns it was because it was a breakdown in a fundamental or a breakdown in an assignment, and that is something we can learn from. We are staying with the basics and not changing anything. Let’s just keep working; we have the opportunity in the next couple weeks to keep getting better and that’s what we plan to do.”

Mallory has stressed team unity from the beginning and he said he sees progress being made. They just have to believe in themselves and in the job they have to do. According to Hayden, having Mallory as a leader makes it more fun too.

“He’s an up-tempo guy,” Hayden said. “He keeps everyone enthusiastic and he is an enthusiastic person himself so it is rubbing off on us.”