CHAMPAIGN — Occasionally Owen Carney Jr. will peek his head around to see if the rest of the defense cracks a smile.
Carney wants to see if the jokes from Jimmy Lindsey, the defensive ends coached turned interim defensive coordinator in the wake of Lovie Smith's firing, are resonating around the team. This all happened so fast. Smith was fired as head coach — he was also the defensive coordinator — on Sunday and Lindsey taking over defensive play-calling duties for the first time.
Emotions are still raw, but the plane will still be gassed up on Friday night, depart from Champaign and land in Pennsylvania for Saturday's 4:30 p.m. kickoff against Penn State in the season finale.
Lindsey has never been in this position, but is reminded to be himself. For Carney that's plenty good enough.
“With coach you’re going to get some laughs, you’re going to get some hard coaching, you’re going to get some tough love but at the end of the day you’re going to feel like you have support," Carney said. "That’s what I get from him. That’s what he’s shown me throughout this whole year. A great guy and so many lessons, so many conversations we’ve had. I can’t wait to play with him on Saturday and lay it out there for my last game of the season."
Lindsey has met with the rest of the defensive staff and leaned on former coaches as he navigates uncertain waters with an even more cloudy future in Champaign as athletic director Josh Whitman seeks out a new head coach. The message Lindsey continues to get — including from Tyson Helton, his former head coach at Western Kentucky — is to simply be who he is and lean on the personality that has led to a 20-year coaching career.
"That’s what I’m going to be," Lindsey said. "I’m going to be myself. I’m going to be genuine. There will be no fakeness, so to speak. I’ll be myself and be demanding of the kids and ask them to do things for us at a high level."
Lindsey was hired by Smith this offseason after the former head coach decided to split up coaching duties between defensive ends and defensive tackles. It was Lindsey's first assistant coaching job at a Power Five school after spending the last three seasons at Western Kentucky. He's been in the industry since 2000, bouncing between FCS and mid-major programs.
Implementing wholesale changes to the defense in a four-day span would be difficult. There will be tweaks, Lindsey said, and Carney indicated as much.
“Just make it fun for the kids because that’s what we coach for," Lindsey said. "Put them in the best possible positions to be successful and execute at a high level. Get them to play with great effort, be great teammates and trust the guy next to them. That’s all we can do as a coaching staff. Our defensive staff of guys have done a great job of that this week."
That doesn't mean the team is mailing it in against the Nittany Lions. Carney said the energy at practice was the same on Tuesday, perhaps even a bit higher than it was last week. Illinois has a chance for its third win in a pandemic-altered season. The season record has been a disappointment, particularly given the expectations two months ago. But one more win would close the chapter — and in some cases, the book — on the year with a positive note.
Lindsey, for the first time in his career, is responsible for one entire side of the ball. He's got to be himself.
“The thing I stressed to them is if they came in that defensive meeting room, they’re all in for one last time — good or bad," Lindsey said. "Starting with there’s no guarantee any of the coaches will be here. Some of the seniors may decide to do other things, try the next level, go to other schools. Let’s just be together, be as one, play for each other, love each other this week and see where the chips fall on Saturday."
Green named first-team All-Big Ten
Redshirt junior offensive lineman Kendrick Green was named first-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and the media. He's the first Illinois offensive player to earn First Team All-Big Ten since WR A.J. Jenkins in 2011 and the first Illinois offensive lineman to earn First Team All-Big Ten since Martin O'Donnell in 2007.
Green, from Peoria, has made 32 consecutive starts and is the second-highest rated guard in the Big Ten by PFF and No. 16 offensive lineman in the nation (min. 450 snaps). He primarily played at left guard this season but played two games at center when Doug Kramer Jr. was out because of contact tracing.
Running back Chase Brown (3rd team media, HM coaches)
Running back Mike Epstein (HM media and coaches)
Center Doug Kramer (HM media and coaches)
Left tackle Vederian Lowe (HM media and coaches)
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25