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Illini football breakthrough: Defense coming on

Illini football breakthrough: Defense coming on

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An interesting development has emerged at Illini spring football practice and I’m guessing it becomes a story line that holds through training camp next August.

For the last two years, it’s been a pretty weak comparison to discuss the difference between the Illini offense and defense. The offense ruled the roost and it has been the offense that has kept Illinois in a number of football games. It’s generally been the defense that has fueled the perception (well-earned) that Illinois is not very competitive in Big Ten play.

It’s a simple thing to say, but when your defense can’t stop the run, and when it continually gives up big plays, your team is probably going to drown in trouble.

Well, nine practices into spring ball and I’d say the defense is ahead of the offense right now. At the heart of the improvement is the play of a vastly better defensive line, which dominated Friday’s scrimmage at Homewood-Flossmoor High School and which has been pushing around the offensive line.

In fairness, the offensive line is not at full strength and won’t be this spring, especially with Ted Karras and Chris O’Connor out while rehabbing injured knees. And a lot of young running backs and tight ends are getting looks.

But finally Illinois has a group of defensive linemen who look like they belong in the Big Ten. Heading the list is Jihad Ward, who has a chance to be a major difference-maker for the Illini this season.

Illinois holds another public scrimmage Friday night at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield. The offense has been put on notice that unless it improves (blocking, route-running, passing), the defense is prepared to control the evening again.

In these scrimmages, the offense does no game-planning for the defense, which is showing some new looks with Mike Phair coming over from the NFL to become co-defensive coordinator with Tim Banks. But offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was very frank on Monday when he admitted that right now, they have no one who can block Ward.

And Robbie Bain in the middle of that defensive line looks strong and surprisingly quick.

The Illini secondary picked off Wes Lunt twice on Friday and grabbed another one late in Monday’s practice. That’s as many interceptions as Lunt threw in 241 pass attempts last season.

Let’s see how this plays out.

But as we move closer to the spring game on Saturday, April 18, the offense vs. defense theme is worth watching. This is the first time we’ve looked at a defense that actually had a fighting chance.

That’s a noteworthy development.

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