A Lion Eye Conversations: Keith Gilmore April 27, 2011
Two assistant coaches survived the sweeping coaching changes after the 2009 season – offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. And if last season was any indication, keeping both coaches around was a very smart decision. I had a chance to sit down with Coach Gilmore last week and discuss the defensive line, his time in Champaign, and his favorite coaching tool, Ball-on-a-Stick.
How do you replace the best defensive tackle to come through the University of Illinois in the last 20 years?
First of all, you don’t replace him. We have a little motto in the defensive line room of “next man in”. I try to use that to our advantage and use a lot of the things that Corey did to help teach the younger players how it’s done and what we expect. You don’t replace a Corey Liuget. You hope the next guy can come in and do an adequate job so we can keep improving as a unit. What I’ve done is I’ve moved our most experienced and productive defensive tackle to Corey’s spot and moved another guy up to try to get it going that way.
I know you’ve coached a lot of good players at other coaching stops, specifically at Cincinnati, but is Corey Liuget the best defensive tackle you’ve ever coached?
No question about it. He’s an explosive kid. Corey learned how to practice, and how that translates into playing well. Once that light came on for him, he became a very, very good player. He’s definitely the best player that I’ve coached. I’ve had some good ones, but he’s the best.
In that same line, how good do you think Akeem Spence can be? Can he climb to that level?
I think so. Spence still has three years of eligibility. He played as a redshirt freshman and made Freshman All-American and all of that, so I think he has some incentive to keep improving. He’s dropped his weight a little bit and he’s playing with more quickness and a little more quick twitch than he had last year, so I’m thinking he can get to that level. He’s a little bit different player and he has to play within that framework, but I think he can be a real good one as well.
So last year he was the nose or shade defensive tackle, and this year he’ll be playing the 3-technique?
Correct. He’s our three. They all have to know both positions, but we have some certain things that we do each guy, and the three technique is a guy who will get more one-on-ones. He has to be able to play in a little bit more space. When we go to a three down look he’ll have to play on the edge or slant towards a contain player, so he’s going to be that guy. He’s ready for the challenge. He understands what Corey did and some of the plays that Corey had an opportunity to make, and he can do the same thing.
Tell me about Craig Wilson coming over to the defensive line.
It’s been a work in progress, but Craig has come in with his lunch pail every day and is working hard. It’s great – I’ve seen the progress from day one to the end of spring practice, and he’s getting better every day. Each day is an adventure for him where he’s learning something new, but the thing for Craig is that he doesn’t continue to make the same mistakes. If there’s one technique that he didn’t get right today, he’ll get it fixed tomorrow. If he keeps doing those things, by the time we get to Rantoul and the preseason practices, I think he’ll be fine. I think he’ll be able to contribute.
When a guy switches from offense to defense are there some bad habits you have to break? Especially for an offensive tackle who is used to sliding away from the ball on the snap – do you have to break him of the habit of backing away?
Sometimes he does have a little bit of an offensive mentality – instead of going after you he sits back a little bit. I think it’s a work in progress, but he’s got it in him. He’s such a great athlete for a kid that size that he gives you some things, so even when he doesn’t come off the ball he’s still hard to move. So I think as things progress he’ll continue to get better at that. I think he’s going to be fine, I really do.
How about Glenn Foster at defensive end now. He was at end, and then moved to defensive tackle and now back to end. Tell me about that.
It’s time for Glenn to play. He’s been around here a while – he’s going into his fourth year, and he’s now playing with a lot of energy. We still have to clean up some technique things because he can be out of control a little bit at times, but he’s playing real hard and rushing the passer hard. He brings an element to our defensive line that other people haven’t brought, so he’ll have his role and I think he’ll have his day in the sun.
The first practice I watched this spring, I was surprised how much Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma had changed. Howe looks like he gained 50 pounds since last fall. Do you think they’re now in a position where they can contribute this year?
I think they’re gonna have to. I’ve got to get them to a point where they can play, there’s no question about it. Those guys are going to have to contribute. Whether it starts out at 5, 10, 15 plays per game, they’re going to get to that point. I think Jake may have gotten a little big a little quick, so I think he’s adjusting to the different weight right now. He was not a true defensive lineman coming in here. He’s a guy who played some fullback and some other stuff, so he’s still learning how to become a true defensive lineman. I think we’ll get his weight in order and find what’s a good point for him to be at he’ll continue to get better. But those guys are going to have to play.
Ideally, how many players do you want to rotate at each position?
My theory has always been to have a pair and a spare. At each position, I want to have a two-deep and I want to have a swing guy that can play either of those positions. So I think we’ll go into it with four tackles and a fifth tackle that can play the one or the three. And then with the five technique (defensive end) I have the first two guys with Glenn (Foster) and Whit (Mercilus), and then hopefully Tim Kynard or one of those guys can be the third guy. That’s about all that you can truly get prepared during the course of a season. During the spring you can play guys, but when the reps are limited during the season and you’re getting ready for an opponent, it’s hard to get more guys than that ready to play.
Was it a little different going into last year with Ron West coaching the bandits? Was it strange to just coach the one end while another coach takes the bandit?
It was different, but I embraced it. Actually, it gave me an opportunity to put more focus and more attention and more coaching. I think I was able to do a better job coaching the three guys as opposed to coaching all four. I lost my grad assistant – he went on to help Ron (West) coach the bandit, and he was familiar with those guys because he was with me prior to that. But I don’t think it was a big deal. Actually, I think it made me a better coach. I could focus in on guys and be a little more detailed on the things you have to do.
Looking at your bio on the website, I saw that you’ve traveled around – Wayne State and Grand Valley State and Cincinnati and other places – how do you like Champaign?
It’s a great college town. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where the whole town is “Illinois!” In some other places I’ve been, there’s been some following, but not like this. Every grocery store you go in or the drug store or wherever, somebody has on Illinois gear. It’s all about Illinois here. My family loves it here. It’s a great town – not too big, not too small – it’s a good in between, and we really enjoy it. The other thing is that it’s close to our relatives. We’re from Michigan originally, and my mom lives in St. Louis, so it’s a good in-between point so we can get where we need to be.
OK, last question, and I have to ask: I need to know about ball-on-a-stick. You use it to train your guys to jump on the ball movement and not on the count, correct? Have you always coached with one?
I’ve used them ever since they came into existence. At one time, they had a ball on a string before they invented the ones with a stick. You want to create that stimulus. I talk about getting off on a hair trigger, meaning that when that ball moves, it has to be second nature that you come off the football and have mean intentions. It just has to be something that you’re focused in and locked in on, and when the ball budges, you have to get off. We try to do as many things as possible with that ball involved so that when they get out there and they start playing, it’s second nature to them.
I always imagined that you carry it with you wherever you go, and you have a special hook by the door when you walk into the house where you hang up your ball-on-a-stick when you get home.
(laughing) It’s not quite to that degree, but it’s very important to me. The guys know it, my managers know it – I’m like “hey, where my ball-on-a-stick?” You gotta have it, man.
I saw there’s one with a wooden handle and one with a metal handle.
They have the new ones now with a metal handle that are like painting rods that extend, so you can really stand a good distance away and watch their technique while getting the snap off.
So maybe they’re like your golf clubs, where you turn to your caddy and ask him for the metal extension ball-on-a-stick.
They know what you need. It’s definitely something that you’ve gotta have.