CHAMPAIGN — Michael Buchanan says he doesn’t pay attention to the hype. But how can he resist?
If NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay was already projecting you as the 24th player taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft (to the New Orleans Saints), wouldn’t you take a peek to see for yourself?
Of course you would.
And so has Buchanan, the senior defensive end for coach Tim Beckman’s first University of Illinois football team.
Two years ago tackle Corey Liuget was the defensive player offenses couldn’t handle and his ability to disrupt helped Illinois make it to the Texas Bowl. It also landed Liuget first-round status with the San Diego Chargers. Last year it was pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, whose 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles brought him from obscurity to a first-round NFL pick with the Houston Texans.
Now, as Illinois holds secret practices in preparation for the Sept. 1 opener against Western Michigan, the overwhelming opinion is that it’s Buchanan’s turn to be Illinois’ defensive difference-maker.
Plans have been hatched to use Buchanan, a 6-foot-6, 250-pouner, at Beckman’s “Leo” position, which will move him from one side to the other and alternately find him rushing the passer and using his athleticism to drop into pass coverage.
So far, Buchanan loves the possibilities.
“I enjoy what they are having me do now,” he said. “I would say I like it a little more than last year.
“I’m definitely looking forward to having a very big senior year. I have the ability and the potential to be that next guy,” he said, a reference to Liuget and Mercilus. “One sack a game is my goal. It’s part of my job. I want to do whatever it takes to help this team win, and part of my job description is to get to the quarterback.”
Unlike Liuget and Mercilus, Buchanan will enter the season with through-the-roof expectations.
“We don’t get into the hype, but Mike is the first guy we’ve had here who came into the season with a lot of fanfare,” said defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the only holdover from Ron Zook’s staff. “It’s something we guard against.
“But he deserves it because he was productive last year with 7½ sacks and second-team all-Big Ten. And hopefully he will continue to get better.
“He’s a great athlete with a lot of speed, height and range. He’s a phenomenal pass rusher. We’ll move him around and make it hard for people to find him at times.”
Just how Illinois can hide the tallest player on the defense — the guy who wears No. 99 — remains to be seen.
But letting him rush from the left and the right — and from the outside and inside — could reduce double-teams.
It doesn’t seem long ago that Buchanan showed up as a lanky, almost skinny freshman from Homewood-Flossmoor.
“It went by pretty fast,” he said of his Illini career. “That was almost 50 pounds ago.”
Buchanan has steadily increased his body mass until a setback this summer, when he suffered a broken jaw in a confrontation he has not publicly explained. He was limited to liquid and blended food and he quickly lost 10 pounds. But he not only gained back the weight, he also gained the endorsement of Beckman, who said he is proud of the way Buchanan handled the incident.
“He knows I made a mistake,” Buchanan said. “That was something that needed to be corrected. I learned a lot. I had to go through the process of letting my teammates know it won’t happen again. I was very apologetic about it.”
Beckman didn’t feel he had to punish Buchanan.
“I thought he did a fabulous job dealing with a very unfortunate situation,” the coach said.
If nothing else, it has made Buchanan appreciate even more what he calls the privilege of playing college football.
As one of the seniors required to speak to the team recently, he made the focus of his talk never taking this experience for granted.
“I talked about cherishing every day you get on the field,” he said.
Defensive coordinator Tim Banks has learned that Buchanan is not a player who acts like he’s already headed to the pros.
“He’s a competitor,” Banks said. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind. He really works hard at it. He is not a kid who relies on sheer talent. He’s a kid who goes out there and works hard in practice, and that’s refreshing. Sometimes your best players don’t necessarily work the hardest but that’s not the case with him.”
Buchanan watched as Liuget and then Mercilus parlayed their effective play into a chance to play in the NFL. He said he’s counting on production to do the same for him.
“I really don’t pay attention to the rankings because if I go out there and don’t produce, it’s all for nothing,” he said. “I will try to be one of the best players in the country. I believe we can be one of the top 10 defenses in the country.”
Illinois ranked seventh in total defense a year ago.
So, better than that?
“Yes,” he said. “I believe we can be.”