Western Illinois defense puts ‘heavy’ emphasis on slowing down ground game

Defensive linemen Tre Henry (6) and Brian Bruce (44) showed off their playmaking abilities during the Western Illinois spring game in Macomb. (Photo by Barry Bottino, PrairieStatePigskin.com)

By Barry Bottino

MACOMB – With seniors Brian Bruce and Tre Henry on the defensive line, Western Illinois boasts a combined 606 pounds of disturbance up front.

That showed up plenty April 21 during the Leathernecks’ spring game at Hanson Field.

The duo hassled quarterbacks and swallowed up running backs throughout the game, which featured Bruce making the biggest play when he recovered a first-half fumble and returned it for a touchdown.

Brian Bruce

“I saw it down on the ground. Nobody else saw it, so I just picked it up and took it to the house,” Bruce said.

The two big bodies on the defensive line will carry a heavy load this season, trying to help Western rebound from an 0-11 season in 2022. Last fall, the Leathernecks gave up 38 rushing touchdowns – the most in FCS, according to NCAA.com – and 232.6 rushing yards a game, which ranked 117th out of 123 FCS teams.

“We play the run first, and we’ve been practicing running to the ball all spring,” said Bruce, a Chicago native. “Everything is getting better, especially against the run.”

Second-year head coach Myers Hendrickson credited the team for a “really productive spring,” and had plenty of praise for his two seniors up front.

“I love the maturation and development of Brian Bruce and Tre Henry,” he said. “They’ve been incredible. I think our D-line play has been strong. I thought that was very fitting to see Brian make that play (on the fumble).”

Tre Henry

Bruce said he and Henry have similar body styles, both “heavy at the bottom,” but are still quick enough to run stunts against opposing offensive lines.

“I like him at the (defensive) end. I like me at the nose,” Bruce said. “I’m real agile at the nose. I’m still 300 pounds. I’m solid. But I can move.”

Deep linebacking corps

Perhaps the deepest group on the roster, Western’s linebackers are a mix of talented veterans and young players who got valuable experience last fall.

“I know we’re in a three-down (line) front in a run-heavy league (the Missouri Valley Football Conference), but the linebackers that we’ve got, there’s a lot of depth out there,” Bruce said.

Back this spring is 2022’s leading tackler Juan Delacruz, a linebacker with 88 stops who entered the transfer just days after last season ended but decided to stay put.

“I’m happy to be back,” Delacruz said. “We have a lot of people coming back. The bond is there. We motivate each other to get better every single practice.”

Also back among the linebackers are junior Chase Graham (69 tackles), senior Anthony Quinney (44 tackles in six games before injury) and sophomore Ryan Crandall (29 tackles in eight games).

“Our front seven play has been tremendous this spring,” Hendrickson said. “We stopped the run well, and the big thing was we got takeaways. If we can get takeaways, we’re a very dangerous football team.”

Confident secondary

The defensive backfield had its share of highlights during the spring game, with junior Corey Scott grabbing an interception and his teammates playing fast and confident.

Corey Scott (right) returns an interception during the WIU spring game. (Photo by Barry Bottino, PrairieStatePigskin.com)

“People are excited to play,” senior safety Bradyn Smith said. “You could see the one-year difference (from last spring). People love being here.”

Smith, a Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin graduate, shared some trash talk late in the game with WIU quarterback Clay Bruno from prep rival Rochester.

“We’ve got a lot of playmakers,” Smith said. “Effort and assignment. It’s the simple things, and that’s how you win games.”

Four days after the spring game, however, Scott entered the transfer portal, according to his Twitter account.

The feeling of an 0-11 record weighed on Smith and others after their season-ending loss at Illinois State in November.

“I remember being in that locker room thinking, ‘This can’t happen again,’” he said. “We have to turn this around. We have spent an entire fall and now an entire spring together. We’re putting it all together.”

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