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Tim Banks: Illini's 2015 defense will be 'really good'

CHAMPAIGN — Tim Beckman wasn’t the only football coach at Illinois whose job was on the line this season. He probably wasn’t even the Tim with the lowest approval rating among Illini fans. Raise your hand if you’re the guy who didn’t think defensive coordinator Tim Banks had to go.

Yet here Banks still is, and you know what? His much-maligned unit — ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (33.9), rushing defense (249.6) and total defense (464.3) — isn’t looking so bad right about now. There are plenty of feel-good stories being told about quarterback Reilly O’Toole and the offense, but the defense was at least as responsible for the late-season surge that lifted the team into the Dec. 26 Heart of Dallas Bowl against Louisiana Tech.

Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern all were stifled — relatively speaking — by Banks’ crew in must-win games for the Illini.

“I think we played extremely well the second half of the season,” said Banks, who still expects to be back in 2015.

Banks’ first Illinois defense, in 2012, didn’t want to listen to him as it struggled to adjust to new leadership. His second one was horrendous, and the third one didn’t really look any better until November. But it’s the potential of defense No. 4 that has Banks feeling more confident than we’ve seen him ever before.

“We should be really good next year,” he said.

By that he means upper-half-of-the-conference good, which would delight Illini fans everywhere. Banks is particularly excited about the duo of 6-6, 295-pound Jihad Ward, who will be a senior, and 6-3, 270-pound Dawuane Smoot, who will be a junior.

“You won’t find a better pair of edge guys in this league,” Banks said.

They’ll have Teko Powell in between them, too. Powell, perhaps the biggest and best interior defensive lineman in the program, missed all but the season’s first three games to injury.

For the second consecutive year, in fact, the Illini will bring back the lion’s share of their defense. In 2015, Banks’ group will be as experienced as any in the Big Ten. If it falters then, Banks will be judged harshly.

“It comes with the job,” he said. “But, yeah, I think next year it’s really going to come together.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg