For two consecutive seasons, the Illinois defense has been, statistically, one of the Big Ten’s worst.
In 2013, the Illini allowed 35.4 points per game, ranking 10th out of 12 Big Ten teams. They ranked 11th in total defense, surrendering 481.5 total yards per game. And they were the worst in the conference when it came to stopping the run, allowing 238.6 opposing rushing yards per contest.
Things didn’t get much better last season, either, as the Illini allowed an average of 34 points per game and 456.4 yards of offense per game, ranking last in the league in both categories. Particularly when it came to stopping the run, the Illini, well, couldn’t. They allowed an average of 239.2 rush yards per game last season, not only the worst mark in the Big Ten but the 11th-worst mark in college football. Some of that can be chalked up to facing off against some of the most talented running backs the conference has seen in recent years. Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Ezekiel Elliott and David Cobb were all on the Illini’s schedule. Only one of those guys will be in 2015.
The defensive disappointment led Illinois to bring in a new co-defensive coordinator this offseason. Mike Phair has been coaching in the NFL for 13 years and served as an NFL assistant for the past seven seasons. He was most recently assisting Lovie Smith with the Buccaneers after spending three seasons under Smith and Marc Trestman with the Bears. That was after three seasons as an assistant with the Seahawks.
In addition to serving as the Illini’s co-defensive coordinator, Phair will also be coaching the defensive line, which is the first line of defense against the rushing onslaught Illinois had difficulty subduing a season ago.
“I can never speak on the past, I just look at this is a new year," Phair said Sunday at the team's media day in Champaign. "So I just coach what I know and teach the way that I teach it. Just plan on looking at it and trying to get better in all areas. That’s probably the biggest thing I can say is just treating it as a new year and just going from there.
Phair’s impact obviously remains to be seen, and he’ll be working closely with Tim Banks, the other half of this defensive-coordinator tandem. Banks was the team’s sole defensive coordinator the past three seasons under Tim Beckman.
There’s no doubting the Illini defense needs a makeover in some way because what’s been happening the past two seasons hasn’t been working. In the past, Beckman has attributed that lack of success to youth and inexperience, an excuse that isn’t going to fly in his fourth year running the program. And it's not an excuse that anyone's using this preseason. The defense is laden with veterans. Every defensive starter on the team's post-spring depth chart was a junior or senior.
That amount of experience has the Illini defense feeling a little different heading into 2015 than it has in years past.
“I think they have a tremendous amount of confidence just because they know what the expectations are," Banks said. "They won’t be in awe in any venue that we play in. These kids have all played. Now, they also understand you’ve got to go out and do it. Having all these guys back is great, but regardless of it, you’ve got to out and execute and you’ve got to show that you can get it done when the lights come on. We’re excited. We’re eager about the challenge. We know it’s right around the corner, and that’s what gets us going every day when we get out of bed. They’re excited.”
“We have a lot of seniors on our defense, so it’s keeping the energy going every day in practice and teaching the younger guys and building off of each other, knowing what success we had last year and where we failed last year," cornerback V'Angelo Bentley said. "It’s going to make us a better defense and ultimately a better team.”
There are stars to be found, most notably Mason Monheim, the senior linebacker who was among the Big Ten’s tackling leaders in 2014. Monheim has 294 career tackles in three seasons with the Illini, ranking second in the FBS among active players. Last season he had 111 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and one sack. He had six games of double-digit tackles.
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In the secondary, Bentley is one of the better all-around players in the conference. He’s a cornerback by trade, though he makes big plays as the Illini’s return man, as well. How about this: He’s the only player in program history to score touchdowns via a kickoff return, punt return, interception return and fumble return. His fumble return touchdown was the game-winning score against Minnesota last season.
And up front on the defensive line, Phair’s department, the coaching staff is excited about Jihad Ward. A former junior-college transfer in his second season with the Illini, he started all 13 games last season and recorded 51 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. His four fumbles recovered were the most in the Big Ten. His 2014 highlight: crushing Northwestern quarterback Zack Oliver for a sack, forcing a fumble and recovering said fumble. Not bad.
“What’s so great is he’s one of the bigger dudes out there with great athleticism, and he’s a great kid," Banks said. "Football is extremely important to him, his teammates are extremely important to him. He’s really worked hard. He was basically like a freshman for us last year, particularly that first half of the season. But when the lights hit that second half of the season, I thought he was one of the better players in this conference. We believe that if he continues to grow and progress, there’s no reason why he can’t be one of the better ones to come through the University of Illinois.”
“You look at the size and the speed and quickness and athletic ability. He’s got big tools," Phair said. "You see tools that are kind of obvious a little bit, but the other part that people that don’t know him (don’t see) is how hard he works, just his mindset. He wants to be good. I would say he’s a motivated guy, so that’s what you love about him. The tools are the obvious part, but he wants to get better.”
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So the cupboard is hardly bare for this Illini defense. But those three players played well last season, and the team’s defensive numbers were still abysmal. A rapid turnaround is going to take more than three guys playing well.
But this Illini defense has grown up. There's new blood on the coaching staff that has everybody involved excited. And there's potential for the Illinois defense to boast a few of the conference's better defensive players. Will all that translate into a different outcome when it comes to actually stopping teams on the field?
The Illini think so.
“Last season, everybody thought we couldn’t make it to a bowl game. We proved that one wrong," Ward said. "And the fact that we didn’t give up — everybody thought we were going to lose to Penn State and Northwestern. You’ve just got to prove people wrong. I don’t get upset when we hear how we’re ranked and stuff. We’re here to get better.”