Illinois football gets new look at linebacking core

Linebacker Houston Bates loves the nickel package.

It’s what the 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker played in high school in Covington, La. He’s comfortable with the formation — a two linebacker set alongside an extra defensive back — which is one of the reasons why he’s played so well this spring, moving into defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s top four linebackers in the rotation.

“I line up on the edge and just come full speed,” Bates said. “It doesn’t matter what’s in your way, you just sack the quarterback.”

Sophomores Jonathan Brown, Brandon Denmark and senior Ian Thomas join the redshirt freshman Bates as the most likely options to receive playing time at linebacker next season.

“Bates is doing a great job right now,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “They’ll all get in there. We’re all trying to get better, and they are all going to have to play.”

Bates might not be the biggest player on the field, but he attributes his recent success to the work he’s done in the weight room and with Koenning. Now in his second year with the team, Koenning made the switch from coaching defensive backs to linebackers this spring after the departure of linebackers coach Dan Disch.

“It’s been eat, sleep, football,” Bates said. “You really have to, especially for a guy like me who doesn’t have a lot of talent and doesn’t have a lot of athleticism, work hard and good things will happen.”

While Bates is focused on getting stronger this spring, Thomas is working on evolving into the megaphone of the Illini defense. Bates said Thomas is the most vocal player on the field and he is ready to take on a larger leadership role.

“Really I talk to everyone,” Thomas said. “I communicate every play, both of our responsibilities, just so we on the same track. It’s just good to communicate.”

Last season, Thomas sprained his ankle in the final game of the regular season against Fresno State. The injury caused Thomas to miss the Texas Bowl, and although Thomas said he’s nearing full recovery, Koenning is taking it slow with his veteran linebacker, who on top of the ankle injury also had groin problems last season.

“He’s kind of an old hat,” Koenning said. “He’s the old warrior. He’s kind of like the (Boston) Celtics are right now. Most of the guys got a day off (Monday) I heard on the radio and they got their butt handed to them by the (Washington) Wizards.

“Ian has been through the wars and we know he can play football. Ian is going to be fine … we’re trying not to burn him out.”

Koenning is relying on Thomas’ health, as he brings the most experience to a linebacker corps that lost starters Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey this season. Both Bussey and Wilson were observing the changes to the defense at practice Tuesday.

“Martez was out there (Tuesday),” Koenning said. “We’d sure like to have him but we wish him well. I think that he’s ready to play. He’s seeing that the kids are having fun out there and he’s got the desire and hunger going for him. I think any time you have a good player, he sets a standard for what you can and what you need to do.”

Both Brown and Denmark had limited roles last year. Brown played in 10 games last season, recording 31 tackles and a sack, while Denmark played in just three games including the Texas Bowl.

“We’ve got a lot of hungry, young guys,” Thomas said. “They’re just eager to get out there and play. A few guys with experience are going to lead and the young guys are going to step up.”