Illini defense struggles to stop run



By Daniel Johnson

If there is one question that resonates the loudest about Illinois football, it is likely this: Why can’t the Illini stop the run?

“That worries us a lot, that doesn’t make our defense look good at all,” linebacker Martez Wilson said. “This next game, we’re going to have to keep them under 100 yards rushing. We can’t have that going against us into Big Ten (Conference play) following the bye week.”

After giving up 226 net rushing yards to Missouri and 176 net to Eastern Illinois, fans, coaches and players alike are looking for answers. Has the defensive line become too soft after the loss of some of its members? Does the defense miss J Leman, Antonio Steele, Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell more than they expected? What is the best way to diagnosis what has gone wrong with the Illinois defense?

The answer might just be to stop looking.

“To me that’s the problem, everybody is looking for help,” safety Travon Bellamy said. “Everybody needs to stop and step up. Everybody needs to do their job. If we do that, the defense is going to take care of itself.”

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While stepping up might sound like an easy thing to do, it isn’t something that is easily quantified on film. If there has been one thing that coaches and players have said ad nauseam about the defensive struggles, it is that players just simply haven’t made plays when needed. Everyone involved on the defense has admitted to some sort of fault, blaming himself and his 10 teammates on the field equally for the mishaps.

“All the players we have starting now, we’re doing OK, but we could be doing a lot better,” Bellamy said. “We have a lot more athletes on defense since I’ve been here. We’ve got better team speed and everything … we’ve just got to stop blaming everyone and stop looking for answers.”

For head coach Ron Zook, the answer involves a case of players trying to do too much when facing the run. The coach said he had talked with his players about adjusting their defense, which may have prompted players to make the same mistakes they were trying to avoid.

“This past week, I think sometimes, everybody wants to fix it, everybody wants to play well, so they get out of their responsibility while trying to make plays,” Zook said. “They have to let the defense work for them. Like in the first game, we didn’t stop the run, we didn’t tackle very well, too many missed assignments, too many missed tackles. Part of it was their fault, part of it was our fault as coaches.”

As far as the players can see, the problem with their run defense is more along the lines of simply not closing running lanes.

Coaches and players talked throughout the week about where the defense has broken down fundamentally, and it seems that the consensus is that if the players can close gaps, regardless of what player does so, trouble will be averted.

“For one, we’ve got to pump our running gaps more, the safeties have to come down and give us support when the linebackers and (defensive line) can’t,” Wilson said. “It don’t matter (what gap), run gaps period. We need our safety support to come down and make tackles when every gap is filled or someone bounces to the outside. But then again, we gotta play more physical, linebackers and line, up front, so the safeties don’t have to cover for us if we make a mistake.”

If Zook finds his players not letting the defense work on its own, it is likely due to one lacking factor – experience.

Closing gaps, finishing your assignments, taking personal responsibility are all things that come with experience, and because it is still early in the season, there is a shortage of that quality. While the USCs and Georgias of the nation have the consistent recruiting classes to reload at any position without skipping a beat, Illinois likely has a few more years contending for the BCS before it can attain that status. For the time being, it will have to deal with growing pains at certain positions.

“We’re going to get better with experience, particularly in the secondary with the safeties,” Zook said. “They’re going to get better with experience. We’ve got two new linebackers in there as well.”

The coincidence for Zook is that this is what he wants new players to look like on his defense – partially.

“I don’t know, honestly … we feel like we’re more athletic, which is what you’re trying to get to is athleticism,” Zook said. “We are more athletic, but right now, we gotta buy some experience.”

Although he is hardly new, defensive lineman Will Davis may best personify what Zook is looking for in a player. After converting to defensive end from wide receiver, the senior now is taking a good portion of his snaps lining up at interior line positions. With the loss of Sirod Williams for the season and Josh Brent to an undisclosed sickness, Davis has picked up much of the slack for the time being on a phase of the game that was being hailed as the strength of the entire team.

“To tell you the truth, it was a necessity, they talked to me and said they needed help on the inside,” Davis said. “Later on down the road, I’m going to be more inside and out, moving inside and out.”

Davis continued.

“Any time you have a defense or an offense, you’re not going to return everyone,” Davis said. “It’s little kinks, little things you have to work out. If you’re lucky, you see those kinks and work them before the Big Ten (conference play starts). It’s a lot of people’s fault. It’s not just the safeties, it’s just everyone having to play their gap and know exactly what they’re doing.”

The most recent loss for Illinois was second-year corner Miami Thomas, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Thomas was a player on the rise, having started his second career game at corner and was one of Zook’s more athletic players. Dere Hicks had played safety some last week, but due to Thomas’ injury, he will likely be moving back to corner. True freshman Tavon Wilson may see increased playing time, as well.

“Tavon is playing earlier than Miami did a year ago,” co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory said. “He’s gotten his feet wet, he’s gotten experience. It’s unfortunate we lost Miami, but Tavon’s got to step up.”

Regardless of which player is playing which position, regardless of a soft Cover 2 shell or a loaded box, regardless of even his ever-coveted experience, Zook just wants his players to play defense — correctly. And for something that sounds so easy, it can, and has, eluded even the best players this year.

“At certain times, they’ve kind of been able to share in the blame,” Zook said with a rare laugh when talking about his defense. “One mental slip here, someone will make a mistake here, and then someone will make it the next time. You just gotta get them all playing on the same page.”