Everyone wants to talk about Ryan Walters and Barry Lunney, Jr.
Countless articles are written about the defensive schemes and the new uptempo offense.
But very, very, very few people pay attention to the backbone of the entire operation — Tenarius “Tank” Wright, the Director of Strength and Development.
Here is a portion of his bio from the Illinois website:
Wright came to Illinois after serving seven seasons on strength and conditioning staffs at Arkansas and Michigan and a stint as the defensive line coach at Army West Point during the 2020 season.
In 2020, Wright helped Army lead the nation in total defense and win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with victories over Navy and Air Force.
At his alma mater, Arkansas, from 2014-17, where he worked on Bielema’s staff for the first time. Wright helped Arkansas produce one first-round pick, one second-round pick, two fourth-round picks, and nine picks from the fifth-seventh rounds.
On paper, Bielema made the right choice to bring Tank back onto his staff.
What Tank has done quietly in the background has been, in a word, jaw-dropping.
Illinois is faster, quicker, and more explosive than the Illini of the last decade. More importantly, as they wear other teams down, the Illini seem to sustain it for 60 minutes a game.
I honestly can’t believe that I’m writing that right now.
Like any Bielema team, Illinois is controlling the trenches. The offensive line has produced the best running back in the nation and allowed only 2 sacks against Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota...combined.
The D-line has been effective. It’s the best P5 rushing defense, top 6 in sacks, top 20 in TFLs (2nd most in TFL Yards), 4th-best opponent third-down conversion percentage.
To put it plainly, the offensive line has given Tommy DeVito all the time in the world, and the defensive line smothers opposing quarterbacks.
In two years, Tank has changed the physical size of these dudes on the line, making them more athletic and better match up with the opposing offensive line.
Johnny Newton put on 25 pounds. Keith Randolph put on 35 pounds. Seth Coleman put on 10 pounds. And the crazy part? True freshman — and possible All-American — Gabe Jacas put on 20 pounds since coming to campus. In the other direction, Calvin Avery is down 15 pounds and still plugging the A-gap as the nose tackle.
Take this still from the Minnesota game for example:
About a second after the ball is snapped, Keith Randolph and Seth Coleman have already beat their man. Tarique Barnes gobbled up the center and Calvin Avery is already past the right guard. On a long passing play that takes 3-4 seconds to develop, Tanner Morgan’s pocket has already collapsed. He goes to his first target down the sideline (could be debated he was throwing it out of bounds), but he doesn't have time to see his receiver wide open on the left side of the field.
Play ends in a certified snag by Kendall Smith.
Go back up and count the jerseys. Illinois has 6 men blitzing and Minnesota has 7 blockers.
That’s just power and athleticism—built by Tank. You didn't see this in years past.
Same game. Let’s look at a passing play by Illinois, also 1 second after the snap. Tommy DeVito has all the time in the world to scan the field and throw an absolute dart to Isaiah Williams down the field for a 12-yard gain.
Palcho is the only lineman searching for a body to block. There is no movement from the offensive line. Orange helmets between the white helmets and DeVito. Look at the positioning of the two lines. Minnesota’s o-line has its back turned to the play while Illinois’ o-line is grounded, impossible to move.
This is the way that Bielema teams just roll — win the trenches.
Tank deserves recognition for getting these players ready to run the schemes that Walters and Lunney call. Tank made boulders out of men and placed them on the O-line. He made bulldozers out of men on the d-line.
Illini teams of the past would have given up room and let the other team dictate play.
The script has flipped, and Illinois is now bringing the power to the line of scrimmage.