CHAMPAIGN — It was only fitting that when Lovie Smith walked into the recruiting lounge in the north end zone for interviews following Saturday's spring football game that he positioned himself in front of a photo of Dick Butkus.
It was no accident that Smith, Illinois' head football coach, stood in front of the mural of the Illini legend after his defense turned in a stellar performance that included three interceptions — two returned for touchdowns.
Team Butkus, as it turns out, was comprised of the first-team defense and beat Team Grange, which had the first-team offense. There was no tackling for the first team, which didn't allow the offense to get in much of a rhythm in a game of glorified two-hand touch, but the defense also more than held its own.
Nate Hobbs picked off quarterback M.J. Rivers II and took it all the way back for a touchdown. Walk-on Sean Coghlan intercepted Coran Taylor and took it for a touchdown after Taylor's pass intended for tight end Bobby Walker was jarred loose on a big hit from defensive back Nick Walker and right into Coghlan's hands.
Then, at the end of the scrimmage, sophomore defensive back Quan Martin had a one-handed interception of Matt Robinson in the end zone.
“Defensively, it’s always about taking the ball away and when you can take the ball away and score, I mean, that’s good," Smith said. "We played good offense last year. We have to improve on the defensive side of the football. Everyone understands that. Some good things out there from our players today."
The players and coaching staff know what the defensive numbers looked like last season. They allowed the most points per game (39.4) in the Big Ten, the most yards per game (508.3) in the conference and allowed the most rushing yards in the conference per game (245.3).
It's fuel and a low point the group is not trying to re-visit.
“Any type of success, when you’re as bad as we were last year, guys need to see that we can be good on that side of the football," Smith said. "In order for us to be a good team, we have to play better (on defense)."
Hobbs and Martin have been the recipients of praise from the coaching staff. They both turned in strong performances Saturday, as they have all spring. Both cited new cornerbacks coach Keynodo Hudson for helping take that group to a higher lever — even before the arrival of highly touted freshman Marquez Beason in the summer.
"We’re not just coming to play," Hobbs said. "We’re coming to dominate. We break it down on, 'Dominate' and 'Family.' That’s what we want to do. We want to dominate on the field and outside the field be a family and fight for our brothers."
Smith has preached the need to take the ball away since arriving in Champaign. Usually, three takeaways per game is the benchmark the Illini try to reach. They did just that on Saturday.
Not only did Martin come away with an interception late, but he also broke up a surefire touchdown for Caleb Reams in the end zone early in the scrimmage. He and Hobbs go back and forth with each other. If Hobbs comes up with a pick, Martin challenges himself to do the same and vice versa. That competition, combined with Hudson's competitive fuel, has led to spring improvements.
“Definitely a lot of confidence," Martin said. "Coach tells us the corners have to be the best on the field. We take that and engrave it into our heads every down and every play and come out hard and play as a whole."
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith conceded it was hard to get into rhythm without tackling on the first team — particularly in the run game, which the offense is predicated on. But Rod Smith was also clear that he didn't see many positives from his quarterbacks or the passing game as a whole — from protection to run blocking. He knows is offense is better than the performance it turned in.
The quarterbacks also noticed a different feel from the defense.
“They definitely got a different vibe," Robinson said. "They’re playing pretty hard, I think. I think they’ve got that swagger. I thought they’ve looked really good though."
Said Rivers: “Everybody is trying to play with confidence and that’s what they’re bringing. In practice you want to just beat them down. It’s a good feeling knowing that when you go into the season that they’re going to have other teams having headaches.
Hobbs said part of the defensive change is age and experience. The other part is the mentality to dominate the game, not simply play it.
There's still a lot of time between April 13 and Aug. 31 when Akron comes to town, but with three spring practices left, Smith said he likes the improvement of his team, though noted they're not game-ready. Hobbs is as confident as anyone in the defensive secondary.
“We definitely took a step forward today," Hobbs said. "We’re going to put us on the map, but we’ve got to work harder and harder every day. We’re not going to be the best if we don’t work hard every day. You’ve got to work harder than the day before.
“We can and we’re going to be the best defensive (backfield) in the nation. I have full faith in that and we’re going to keep going hard."