URBANA — Most conversations with Illinois football coach Lovie Smith come back to the same word: Takeaways.
During his career, Smith's teams have feasted on the ability to pluck the ball away from the opposing offense, and have in turn returned the ball to their own offense. That defensive trait has been a work in progress for Smith at Illinois, but on Saturday at Illinois football training camp, the Illini defense ate.
Linebacker Jake Hansen had a pair of interceptions, one out of the hand of quarterback Brandon Peters and one out of the hand of freshman Isaiah Williams. Linebacker Milo Eifler took advantage of an under-thrown ball by Williams and defensive back Nick Walker got up for a takeaway by picking off Williams. Coran Taylor also threw an interception into the hands of Michael Marchese.
That part of practice was pleasing to Smith, who is also the team's defensive coordinator.
On the other side of that coin, Smith saw his offense throw interception after interception. It's a tug of war for the Illinois football coach. But after the defense was much, and deserving, maligned after a statistically bad season, there's no doubt the victory was sweet for the defensive players.
“As I’m focusing on the defensive side of the football, that’s a great day," Smith said. "As I’m looking in my head coach’s role, you’ve got to protect the football. It’s as simple as that."
The offense wasn't without its bright spots. Robinson and Peters both hit tight end Daniel Barker for big plays, and Robinson's throw ended with a touchdown for Barker. Williams showed off his feet by spinning away from trouble and throwing for first downs while also threaded a long pass to running back Jakari Norwood. Trevon Sidney continued to put on a catching clinic as he acclimates to camp after coming to Champaign from USC as a graduate transfer.
That give and take for Smith struck again, but he's not one to show if he's fretting and he certainly doesn't appear to be fretting after day two of training camp. On Sunday, the team will put on shoulder pads. That's when things start looking a bit more like football.
“We see some good things," Smith said. "The offensive system is going in strongly. The defense had a good day taking the ball away and things like that. We’re getting some things done, but again, this is day two of training camp. There’s a long way to go."
Illinois' defensive victory was more than takeaways on the back end of the field. The defensive line got pressure in the backfield and rushed throws or thwarted the running game. In particular, USC graduate transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr., was a menace in the backfield. Betiku was a former five-star recruit out of high school and is listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds who certainly looks the part of a Big Ten defensive lineman.
He has muscles on top of his muscles, and Smith joked on Friday that Betiku would be the first person off the bus when they arrived at opposing arenas. He has an intimidation factor about him.
Smith envisions Betiku on the strong side, on the weak side and all over the field. Betiku provides plenty of options. Coming to Champaign is also a chance for Betiku to start over after an underwhelming career at USC. Saturday showed his potential.
“Wole has done some good things since he’s been here," Smith said. "He’s a good football player. It’s a new system for how we do things. He should be a guy that we’re going to count on a lot of different ways. He can do some things."
Smith has to balance the push and pull of, say, a strong offensive day one day and a strong defensive day the other. But there's no doubt the defense carried a finger-wagging swagger on Saturday and exuded confidence after big plays.
“I think you play with more confidence when you kind of know what you’re doing," Smith said. "When you know what you’re doing, now you can play with whatever talent you have, you see it every play. That’s what we’re trying to do. As a coach, you want to get players in position to make plays and once they get into the position to make a play, we’ll take our chances on whether we do or not."
On Saturday, they did.