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Illini have shoes to fill on defense

Linebacker Ian Thomas (shown last seasagainst Missouri) has real can-do attitude. | Dilip Vishwanat~Getty Images

Linebacker Ian Thomas (shown last season against Missouri) has a real can-do attitude. | Dilip Vishwanat~Getty Images

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Updated: November 4, 2011 7:50PM

They’ve got next.

With defensive tackle Corey
Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson off to the NFL a year early,
Illinois is looking for a couple of good replacements.

Time — and opponents — will tell, but the Illini think they’ve found their men in Akeem Spence and Ian Thomas.

Both started last season but are moving into new slots. Spence is
going from nose tackle to three-technique tackle, and Thomas is going from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.

‘‘Last year around this time, no one was really talking about [Liuget and Wilson],’’ senior cornerback Tavon Wilson said. ‘‘Everybody was wondering. Akeem is moving into Corey’s spot. He was a freshman All-American, and he’s taking the attitude that we can play without Corey Liuget. And Ian Thomas is taking it on himself to be a leader, just like Martez, and prove that he can play also.’’

The spotlight is especially bright on Spence, a 6-1, 305-pound sophomore who will be expected to provide the oomph and inspiring leadership of Liuget.

‘‘Man, Akeem’s strong,’’ defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. ‘‘He overpowers most people. I’d put him against an NFL player. I feel like he’s going to break out this year.’’

Spence made 45 tackles as a redshirt freshman last season, earning a variety of all-freshman honors. So is all this attention exciting, or does it make him nervous?

‘‘I’d say both,’’ Spence said. ‘‘I’ve been loving the spotlight. At the same time, there’s pressure because I have to make the plays [Liuget] made, do everything right, like he did. I can’t be the next Corey Liuget, but I can be the next Akeem Spence.’’

It’s a plus that Spence was able to work alongside Liuget, coach Ron Zook said.

‘‘He saw the work ethic, all the things you have to do to be good,’’ Zook said.

That includes the vocal leadership Liuget provided.

‘‘I’m encouraging the guys to go hard every play, to stay upbeat; that’s what Corey did,’’ said Spence, who’s focused most on his footwork. ‘‘I know the calls; I know the schemes. In the three-technique, it’s different steps. I’m trying to get my steps down.’’

Meanwhile, the 6-1, 235-pound Thomas brings a very different
approach than the 6-4, 250-pound Wilson did.

‘‘They’re completely different players,’’ defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. ‘‘Martez was kind of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker type of guy. His best atttributes weren’t sitting there and getting the reads right; his best attributes were going after the guy with the football. We didn’t worry Martez with a bunch of rules. We just said, ‘Go!’  ’’

Thomas, a third-year starter, doesn’t have Wilson’s exceptional speed/size/power combination, nor his green light. But he’s more than capable physically, and he’s able to process the scheme stuff that makes Koenning a top coordinator.

‘‘Ian’s a guy who needs to do things right,’’ said Koenning, who indicated Thomas has been slipping the blocks of 250-pound fullback Jay Prosch in practice. ‘‘Jay Prosch is as good a fullback as there is in the country. Ian’s going to do very well.’’

Although he’s a low-profile guy at this point, Thomas is ready to be productive and lead an inexperienced linebacking corps. With 25 consecutive starts and four years of weight-room muscle built, the redshirt senior has a can-do attitude.

‘‘I’m the type of player who can pick up the defense and do my
assignments well,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘I just go out and do my assignments and be where they want me to be.’’

With two other productive
defenders — end Clay Nurse and linebacker Nate Bussey — also gone, Koenning will have to work some magic to fashion a competent defense.

That‘s a challenge he accepts.

‘‘Not to take away from Corey and Martez,’’ Koenning said. ‘‘Not many schools can lose [two stars a year early] and say, ‘We’re going to be better.’ But our expectations are to be better as a defense.’’

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