Defense may have fans seeing stars this season

Defense may have fans seeing stars this season

By Gordon Voit

You can call him “R BOB K,” or Rolling Ball of Butcher Knives if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

That’s what defensive coordinator Vic Koenning calls linebacker Houston Bates, a fast-rising redshirt freshman who has wedged himself into the rotation thanks to a standout motor. After posting five tackles, two for a loss, a sack and a fumble recovery in his first collegiate game Saturday, Bates earned a new name: Big Ten Freshman of the Week.

Bates teamed up with fellow linebacker Jonathan Brown and end Whitney Mercilus in the first quarter of Saturday’s opener to give Illinois fans a glimpse of 1994, when the wrecking crew of future NFL staples Dana White, Simeon Rice, Kevin Hardy and John Holecek wreaked havoc on the Big Ten in defensive coordinator Chris Cosh’s 3-4 scheme.

The 15-minute spurt of brilliance was kicked off by Brown’s unblocked entry into the Arkansas State backfield, followed by a Bates tackle for a loss and a Mercilus sack/forced fumble combo on quarterback Ryan Aplin.

While Brown and Mercilus cooled off, Bates — who originally committed to childhood favorite LSU — was disruptive in the second quarter, too, taking down Aplin for a loss of six to set up 3rd and 16 and reaching Aplin again on 3rd and 9 following a pocket collapse.

But is it enough? The Illini “front four”:, my biggest question mark heading into the game, was far from impressive from the second quarter on and seemed to get bailed out by the home run power provided by Bates and Trulon Henry, who provided fireworks when he made a diving grab of an Allen Muse bobble.

Is it enough that Glenn Foster, Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence, who Koenning will count on to be All-Big Ten, combined for just seven tackles (two solo tackles), zero for a loss and zero sacks? Given the near-complete lack of game experience on the Red Wolves’ offensive line, the time given to Aplin in the pocket was undoubtedly generous.

In fact, Aplin, a Tampa, Fla., native who the Illinois coaching staff kept tabs on in the recruiting process, would have had far more than 290 yards had his receivers not dropped a number of catchable balls. Once the Illini front four stopped applying pressure, Aplin was able to settle in and finished the second half 12-of-18 for 183 yards.

For the game, Aplin connected for completions of 65, 35 and 22 yards to go with a handful in the teens. The Illini secondary undoubtedly has speed and experience, but the unit has yet to prove the third side of the triangle, that is, ball skills. Too many times it seemed that starters Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson froze with the ball in the air. Granted, the unit hasn’t had much time to coalesce as a group given the position switches and injuries over the past year, but not giving up the deep ball will be something to watch out for as the season progresses.

Ian Thomas is in need of a Five Hour Energy boost himself. If Thomas is virtually 100 percent like he claims, then something else has dogged him going back to the middle of last season. In the team’s first six games, Thomas flashed All-Conference potential, recording 17 solo tackles, four tackles for a loss and a sack while posting just 10 solo tackles in the second half of the season and the Texas Bowl combined, with four games of zero or one solo tackle.

Thomas started with a bang in Saturday’s opener when he chased Aplin toward the sideline on the second play of the game. He finished with a whisper, however, with three assists and one solo to go with one half a tackle for a loss. Koenning’s group is going to need the senior to revert to early 2010 form if the defense is going to hold up against power running teams like Wisconsin and Penn State.

Glenn Foster is one name who you could be hearing more and more. The cat-quick 260-pounder has assumed the starting tackle spot opposite Spence and has drawn rave reviews from head coach Ron Zook and the junior’s teammates, even if his production has yet to manifest itself.

“I’m very, very proud of Glenn Foster,” Zook said during last Tuesday’s press conference. “He just plays with such a motor and has the tendency, occasionally, to get (his pad level) high.”

Foster has an uncanny knack of firing off the ball, as evidenced by his batted pass early in Saturday’s game. As Wilson learns the position, Foster and sophomore Tim Kynard will need to apply pressure up front in aid of Spence and Mercilus. Kynard finished with his most productive game to date, with two solo tackles and an assist on a tackle for loss.

Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @GordonVoit.