Illini look for linebackers to step up

Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning can’t catch a break.

Last season, Koenning’s first at Illinois, he oversaw a secondary group decimated by injuries throughout most of the early part of the season before turning into one of Illinois’ pleasant surprises. Now coaching the inside linebackers, Koenning is once again tasked with answering one of the most difficult questions facing the Illini: Who will step up at linebacker?

“Who is a returning starter except for a couple guys in the secondary?” Koenning asked after a recent practice.

With the losses of both Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey, both of whom were picked up by the New Orleans Saints in April’s NFL Draft, Illinois must replace its two leading tacklers from last season, when the pair accounted for more than 20 percent of the team’s takedowns.

One player who drew praise for his play during Camp Rantoul was Jonathan Brown, a sophomore who recorded 31 tackles in 12 games as a true freshman last season. That number could easily rise this season with more playing time as well as an improved awareness for the ballcarrier.

“Probably just running to the ball more,” Brown said of his biggest improvement during training camp. “A goal for the defense before camp was just getting to the ball and swarming to the ball. I feel like we started to do that a little bit more toward the end of camp.”

Koenning also pointed out that consistency will be a key factor in Brown’s continued growth.

“Brown’s had some spectacular plays and he’s had some plays where he kinda didn’t play as fast as he needs to play. We need to establish some consistency there,” Koenning said.

Many of the freshmen linebackers have also turned heads during camp, including Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper. And with a wide-open competition at the position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see freshmen earning snaps early in the season.

“The young guys are picking up the defense really fast,” senior Ian Thomas said. “They’re showing a lot of aggression, showing that they really love football.”

With question marks surrounding him, though, one player the defense and the front seven in particular will lean heavily on is senior Ian Thomas, who will take Wilson’s place as the middle linebacker. Thomas should be familiar with the new spot, having played the position two years ago after Wilson was lost for the season with a neck injury.

As one of the few veterans in a young group, Thomas said he is aware that many eyes will be on him.

“I just want to be a good leader for the defense,” he said. “Just keep the defense going and be the spark of the defense when we’re down.”