Young cornerbacks learning on the fly

The Illinois football team has been described as “young” and “inexperienced,” but no position group personifies these labels like the Illini cornerbacks.

After losing starting corners Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green, along with Jack Ramsey and Patrick Nixon-Youman, the Illini secondary is almost completely new in 2013. Only two cornerbacks have any collegiate experience prior to 2013 — sophomores V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence — and there are just two combined starts between the pair.

In crunch time, the defensive coordinator has turned to true freshmen Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap as the first reserves off the bench in the secondary. Especially with Bentley being on the field for kick and punt return, the freshmen are on call at all times during the game.

“We get to teach these guys through experience,” Bentley said. “They’ve got the talent. So when we’re teaching them, they’re teaching us at the same time. It’s a good vibe in the room.”

Spence and Bentley are the only two that played last season, so while they haven’t been around much, they can offer the knowledge that they gleaned from the previous season.

“(Spence) hasn’t played enough to have war stories,” Banks said. “But he brings toughness and tenacity to the group.”

Spence spent the entire 2011 season from the sidelines while he redshirted but the sophomore was ready to see the field as soon as he was eligible. He played in all 12 games last season, including two starts.

“If you go anywhere you’re going to want to compete for a starting job,” Spence said. “I came in here expecting to start because I came in here ready to start.”

His game has continued to progress this season. In a game against Washington this past Saturday, Spence recorded 14 total tackles, a number that nearly matched his 16 total stops in 2012.

While the game experience has been more baptism by fire than water, the secondary has kept opponents off of the board when needed.

The Illini are 115th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense, allowing 492.7 yards per contest. However, when the team needed a stop on fourth and goal against Southern Illinois and Cincinnati, the defense came through, forcing turnovers on both plays which led to two Illini victories.

Where the young defense couldn’t hold to the task was last Saturday against Washington. The Huskies racked up 615 yards and 34 points with an up-tempo attack that featured a heavy dose of misdirection and bubble screens to the perimeter.

All could have been forgiven if the defense could have gotten one more stop midway through the fourth quarter with the Illini down by seven points, but the Huskies rattled off 11 plays covering 54 yards which led to the game-clinching 32-yard field goal.

Missed tackles and a few big plays dominated the postmortem film talk, but ultimately Bentley said that the team was much more competitive and fiery than the year prior.

“We competed, and that’s not something we did a great job of last year,” he said. “There’s a sense of togetherness. I’m not going to say we weren’t together last year but now we have a year under our coaches and they’ve done a great job of pushing us to believe in family, faith and the team effort.”

While the labels slapped on the secondary hold true for now, the notoriety of being green as a unit on the field is slowly stripped away every game.

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.