Defensive coaching staff looks for turnaround after early-season woes

The+Illinois+defensive+line+prepares+for+a+snap+during+the+game+against+Nebraska+on+Aug.+28.+Defensive+consistency+has+been+a+major+issue+for+the+Illini%2C+as+they+have+allowed+an+average+of+over+33+points+per+game+this+season.

Lanie Hibel

The Illinois defensive line prepares for a snap during the game against Nebraska on Aug. 28. Defensive consistency has been a major issue for the Illini, as they have allowed an average of over 33 points per game this season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

The Bret Bielema era was ushered in with the hope of making changes from the top down, but just three weeks into the season, the team is already showing similar warts to those of the Lovie Smith era. While the special teams unit has been excellent as usual, the offense has been lackluster, and the defense has been even worse. 

The Illini defense has looked seemingly worse each week, giving up 22, 37 and 42 points in the first three games, respectively. One factor going into the worsening defense may be injuries, as sophomore transfer linebacker Calvin Hart Jr. was declared out for the season with a knee injury after the first game of the season. Hart was a big playmaker in Illinois’ sole win, which came over Nebraska, racking up 1.5 tackles for losses, a sack and a fumble return touchdown.

“That was a devastating blow for us because he was such a great leader,” said defensive backs coach Aaron Henry. “He was a high energy guy. He scored a touchdown that potentially gave us a chance to win the game. We won by eight, and he had one of the touchdowns. Any time you lose a guy like that, it’s a tough blow, but we’ve got guys behind him.”

Although injuries can weaken a defense, it’s hard to imagine they are the sole cause of housing the worst secondary in the Big Ten by a country mile. Going into its fourth matchup, Illinois has given up 311.7 passing yards per game. The next worst is Minnesota, but even the Golden Gophers only give up 265.5 passing yards per game.

A variety of coaches on the defensive staff have diagnosed Illinois’ shortcomings as results of couple problems: mental miscues and a lack of fundamentals.

“We gotta handle adversity better,” said defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. “When we’re calm and not really pressing, we play well. But when we’re trying to seek and make plays and get rattled, things start to unravel. We gotta be able to hit the reset button. When we hit a bad play, that can’t turn into a snowball effect. The bad things are going to happen, so when we do that, it’s about not letting them affect the future.”

One example of these miscues would be the end of Illinois’ blowout loss to Virginia last week. As the fourth quarter wore on and the outcome was clear, players were visibly frustrated and, at one point, committed defensive penalties on three different plays in one drive. Bielema addressed the situation as unacceptable after the game, but the damage had been done to make it clear that discipline may be a struggling point for the Illini.

While it’s the job of Illinois coaches to try to solve the team’s problems through coaching ingenuity, the root of the team’s problems may simply come from personnel. Illinois has the most returning seniors of any team in the country, which aids continuity but also signals a continuation of the same roster that went 2-6 last year. Recruitment was a major problem during Lovie Smith’s tenure and was also a point of emphasis when Bielema was hired. If talent is the issue, stronger recruitment must be the way Illinois turns around its struggling program around.

“Obviously the defeats and victories will affect recruiting in that regard, but I don’t really ever look at recruiting on a game day,” Bielema said after last week’s loss to Virginia. “The roster is what we had and what we added until fall camp. Now, we’ll play the season as we see it, and we’ll make a transition to next year’s roster (afterward).”

Looking forward, Illinois plays a Maryland team this Friday that had one of the weaker offenses in the Big Ten last season and may give them a chance to rebound defensively. However, after emotions ran high in the loss last week, it will take more than a comfortable matchup for Illinois to turn things around.

“The most frustrating part is seeing guys doing it right in practice, and then we get to game day and it still doesn’t look like they did,” Walters said. “And that’s more frustrating for me than for them. I mean they’ve put in the time to be confident. They look like they’ve prepared the right way to be confident, so they’ve just got to cut it loose and be confident on game day. For whatever reason, the last two weeks, it hasn’t been the case.”

@WesHollenberg

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