CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois gave up rushing yards in bunches in 2013.
In a 60-35 loss to Ohio State the total was 441 yards and five touchdowns. Against Indiana, 371 yards in a 52-35 pounding. And against Washington, 273 yards while watching the Huskies win 34-24.
The run defense was statistically the Big Ten's worst in allowing 238.6 yards per game and 5.6 per carry, the kind of numbers that make it tough to get an opponent's offense off the field.
That's one of the big reasons Illinois coach Tim Beckman, defensive coordinator Tim Banks and players all talked about the need to start fast when they open the season Saturday against Youngstown State.
Beckman believes the run defense will be better, if for no other reason than it's older and deeper than it was a year ago.
"When you're only (regularly) playing 15, 16 defensive football players in a season and there's a bunch of young freshmen and sophomores playing for you, there's no question that fundamentals are something that are lacking," he said Monday.
Beckman said this season expects to have, for example, four to five Big Ten-quality defensive tackles, and three players at the hybrid linebacker-defensive lineman spot. The best of those "LEOs" right now is senior Dejazz Woods, who went into preseason camp with sophomore Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips pushing hard to take his spot.
"Dejazz has stepped his game up, through competition and through what we've asked him to do," Beckman said. "He's earned the right to be that starter."
Banks said he hasn't tried to remake his run defense based on last season's problems or even focused much on what happened in 2013 with his players.
"We had our issues, don't get me wrong," he said. "(But) in all honesty, you don't talk a lot about last year."
He believes that, instead of a complete rewrite, giving players simple goals focused tightly on fundamentals will make them better.
"You talk about those little things so the guys can concentrate."
But looking past last season isn't so easy, junior linebacker Mason Monheim said.
"Guys remember how we felt walking off the field last year at Northwestern," he said, referring to the 37-34 season-ending loss.
Monheim expects a Youngstown State team with a new quarterback in Dante Nania and a returning running back, Martin Ruiz, who ran for 1,094 yards (5.7 a carry) last season to come right at Illinois' run defense.
"They're going to test us there," he said. "We're going to be fine."
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