As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can the Illini defense improve this season?
A year ago, Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was always talking about the youth and inexperience of his defense. That youth and inexperience led to one of the worst-performing defenses in the Big Ten. The Illini allowed 35.4 points per game, a better mark than only Purdue and Indiana. They allowed 481.5 yards per game, second-worst in the conference, ahead of only Indiana.
Much of the Illini defense will be stocked with players returning from last year’s team. Many of the projected starters are juniors and seniors. What it means is that the youth and inexperience argument won’t fly in 2014.
So now that youth and inexperience have turned to age and experience, will there be significant improvement?
That label was most frequently applied to the secondary, a spot where guys like V’Angelo Bentley and Earnest Thomas are part of a returning group of defensive backs. If there was a lesser of two evils a year ago, it was the pass defense, which allowed an average of 242.9 yards a game, ranking ninth in the Big Ten. That’s not that great, but with another year under their belts, the coaching staff does expect improvement.
“I think we’ve made some strides, I really do,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said in an interview before the spring game in April. “Obviously, we’re still a work in progress. But to say, ‘Are we better than we were last year?’ I think we are to this point because those guys have played. They got pretty good experience, their eyes aren’t as bright, they’ve kind of taken it in, the details of each coverage. And I think they’re a lot more confident in terms of playing the ball when the ball’s in flight. I think we’re better. How much better? We’ve still got some room.”
It’s in stopping the run where the Illini need to see the most difference if they’re going to improve upon the one conference win they had a season ago.
The Illini ranked last in the league in rushing defense, allowing an average of 238.6 yards per game. And the new Big Ten West Division presents match ups with talented backs like Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), David Cobb (Minnesota) and Venric Mark (Northwestern).
[MORE BIG TEN: Illini add JUCO wideout to new-look receiving corps]
But it’ll be a tall task to make those numbers look better considering the bit of experience and talent the Illini defense did have last season is gone. Jonathan Brown, one of the conference’s leading tacklers, graduated, while Houston Bates — second on the team behind Brown in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (3.5) — transferred.
In the linebacking corps, Mason Monheim returns as a guy who’s started a bunch of games over the past two seasons, and Illini coaches were all abuzz this spring over T.J. Neal, a sophomore who figures to grab a starting role after being described as “the surprise of the spring.” The defensive line is a little shallower following the departure of Bates and Tim Kynard. Austin Teitsma is a senior, and there are high hopes for JUCO transfer Carroll Phillips.
So while youth and inexperience might have served as a reasonable explanation for the Illini’s woes last season, it won’t in Year 3 of the Beckman Era. If there’s not significant improvement, it could be another campaign like the first two under Beckman, which saw the Illini win a total of one game in Big Ten play.