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Zook wants Miller to be defensive leader
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/8/2008 12:05 AM

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During a first-half break in the action Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Illinois introduced six of the best linebackers in school annals.

There, standing side by side near the south end zone, were Darrick Brownlow, Dick Butkus, Kevin Hardy, Dana Howard, J Leman and Scott Studwell.

Considering Hardy and Howard won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker - and Butkus' name is on the award - that's a pretty strong crew.

But as the players were introduced one by one, Leman seemed to receive an even bigger roar than Butkus.

Perhaps that's because Leman just finished his career at Illinois. Perhaps that's because Leman grew up in Champaign. Or, perhaps, Illini fans wished Leman still was in uniform.

Senior Brit Miller has inherited Leman's spot in the middle of the defense, but he hasn't gotten off to as good of a start as anyone would like.

On the other hand, he was better Saturday than in No. 24 Illinois' season-opening loss to Missouri.

"Coach (Ron Zook) pulled me aside and said he expected me to be a better leader," Miller said. "I took that to heart. When your coach and the guy you look up to says that, you need to try to get that done."

While Miller certainly stuffed the stat sheet in the 47-21 victory over Eastern Illinois - 11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception - he still had a fistful of missed tackles.

Case in point in the first quarter: Miller intercepted EIU's first play from scrimmage (it bounced off the fullback's hands) and set up Illinois' game-opening touchdown.

But on EIU's next play, running back Travorus Bess hit a hole on the right side of the line. Miller scraped down to meet him but hit Bess too low to affect his course.

Bess sped down the right sideline for 55 yards to set up the Panthers' game-tying score two snaps later.

"We've still got a lot to be desired out of our team right now," Miller said.

Indeed, it's unfair to lay Illinois' defensive issues on Miller more than anyone else.

With several players in the secondary (as well as outside linebackers Martez Wilson and Rodney Pittman) learning on the job, the Illini haven't hit their stride defensively.

"I think we've made some progress," co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "We can't give up big plays, that's the big thing. We can't let 10-yard plays become 70 or 60 - and we did that again. We'll continue to work on that. And that's angles to the ball, pursuit, that's tackling. That's everybody, all 11 of us."

Expect more full-contact drills in practice this week as Illinois hosts Louisiana-Lafayette (0-1) on Saturday before having an extra week to prepare for the Big Ten opener at Penn State.

"I think there's a perception you're going to keep (getting better and better) from year to year to year," Disch said. "The reality is, we've got some new kids. It's a new team. It's going to take on a new personality. We've got to play to their strengths. We'll find what that is."