Illinois front seven shows it can reload

Last Sunday, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and his staff brainstormed a unique game plan for a dangerous opponent.

They mixed up fronts, disguised blitzes, constantly moved players around and let creativity trump conservatism in mapping out ways to pressure Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler. With the blueprint finalized, the coaches prepared to head home.

"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'This is crazy,'" Koenning said.

The plan placed a burden on Illinois' defensive front seven, a group many outsiders questioned heading into the season, and for good reason.

Illinois had to replace three players selected in April's NFL draft: defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a first-round pick; linebacker Martez Wilson, a third-round pick; and linebacker Nate Bussey, a seventh-round pick. Both Liuget and Wilson opted to forgo their final year of eligibility, seemingly leaving the Illini in a bit of a pinch.

But what the Illini defense lost in star power, it gained in a group with greater knowledge of the system. And, in the process, new stars are being born.

"They were great players, they brought a lot to the team," senior linebacker Ian Thomas said of Liuget, Wilson and Bussey, "but this year, we feel like we're a little more comfortable with the defense. We've got the defense down a little more, so it makes up for those guys that we lost."

The Illini made Koenning's crazy plan look genius Saturday night in a 17-14 win against Arizona State, which came to Champaign averaging 42.5 points and 504.5 offensive yards.

Illinois recorded six sacks, all by the front seven, and 12 tackles for loss.

Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown had a breakout performance with an interception, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Others stood out like end Whitney Mercilus (5 tackles, 2 sacks, forced fumble), bandit Michael Buchanan (1.5 sacks) and tackle Glenn Foster (interception, 1 tackle for loss).

Although Illinois starts only two seniors in the front seven -- Thomas and Trulon Henry, who moved from safety to linebacker to address depth there -- the group is displaying greater maturity in Year 2 under Koenning.

"We're a lot further along than we were last year," defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said, "just knowing the little nuances of the defense. Heck, I was still learning as well. I think I'm a better coach and a better teacher at this point in knowing the scheme, and know the kids are better players because of it."

Gilmore admits the coaches were "a little uptight" when first implementing the Arizona State game plan. But by the middle of the practice week, it began to click with the players.

Could Illinois have executed the same type of plan last year?

"We were still learning a lot of the base stuff," Gilmore said. "We came up with some different plans as well last year, but being a year into it, it's easier to make sideline adjustments and game adjustments as you go along because the kids have a better feel for the defense."

Brown was all over the field Saturday night, factoring into two of Illinois' three takeaways. He hit Osweiler on a blitz, forcing a throw that caromed off of an Arizona State lineman to Foster for an interception.

In the third quarter, he recorded a pick of his own following a deflected pass.

"We showed what we've been thinking all summer," Brown said, "that we can play with anybody in the country, and that we have the best defense in the country. Coming into the season, they had us ranked dead last as a linebacker corps. One of our goals was to go out and prove people wrong."

Although Illinois lost two linebackers to the NFL, its biggest concern was replacing Liuget, the Big Ten's most dominant interior lineman in 2011. The defensive line's performance against Arizona State bodes well for Big Ten play.

"We talk about 'next man in' all the time, whether it be to an injury or graduation or an NFL departure," Gilmore said. "They all have talent. It's a matter of who gets an opportunity to showcase that talent."

Thomas, the graybeard of the defense, is seeing his teammates grasp the opportunities presented to them.

"I'm real confident in those guys," he said. "I know I can depend on them to be where they need to be."