Bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan reminded Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning of John Denver, the folk music star of the 1960s and 1970s. "Some days are diamonds,'' Koenning said, referring to a long-ago hit by Denver. "Some days are stones."

RANTOUL -- Bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan reminded Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning of John Denver, the folk music star of the 1960s and 1970s.


"Some days are diamonds,'' Koenning said, referring to a long-ago hit by Denver. "Some days are stones.


"Some days, he really looks like a guy. Some days, he reverts. We're going to have to have him be diamonds every game.''


Koenning probably didn't use the same analogy with Buchanan, the junior from Homewood-Flossmoor whose lean frame and speed made him the best option at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. But whatever the message, Buchanan received it loud and clear.


"Coach wants me to be great,'' Buchanan said. "He wants to challenge me. He said that to challenge me. I understand I need that. I want to work hard and be a great player.''


From the stands, Illini should notice a difference in Buchanan, more than the added 15 pounds that push him to 6-foot-6, 245 pounds.


"More explosive, more polished pass rusher,'' he said. "First hat to the ball every time. Hopefully, a complete turnaround from last year.


"I left a lot of plays out there. I was kind of spotty. There were games where I could have done more. Knowing what I know now, I'll be a better playmaker and a better team player.''


Buchanan was relatively quiet last season in a position that's designed to make some noise. He played in 11 games, started eight and missed two games after a suspension for a DUI arrest. He finished with 40 tackles, often disappearing in games. In his second year at the position, Buchanan faces higher expectations.


"Somewhere along the line, these guys have got to be players for us,'' Koenning said. "They have to show up.


"That position is extremely important. The tradition of that position is pretty salty. Mike has the ability to do what some of those guys have done. It's in his hands. He's got some God-given tools. He's got to realize it.''


Since adopting the scheme earlier in his career, Koenning and his staff, including outside linebackers coach Ron West, have developed a string of notorious bandits.


While at Troy, Koenning tutored DeMarcus Ware, taken with the 11th pick in the 2005 NFL draft. When Koenning arrived at Clemson before the 2005 season, the Tigers already had a front four, but Koenning took White's advice and converted Gaines Adams into a bandit. He immediately became a star.


Adams finished his Clemson career as ACC defensive player of the year before he was taken in the fourth pick in the 2007 NFL draft. He died shortly after he was traded to the Bears in 2010.


By playing a bandit, it allows the defense to shift from a four- to a three-man front, depending on how Buchanan is used: as a five-technique defensive end or as a stand-up linebacker who drops into coverage or blitzes from the edge. The scheme became popular as an answer to the spread offenses. It's also a plus in recruiting, West said.


"It helps us take the in-between kids,'' West said. "The kids that are tall, that aren't as big as five-technique defensive ends. We take them as a bandit. They're fast, and we can develop them.''


The position allowed Illinois to land freshman Darrius Caldwell, an Atlanta native who decommitted from Georgia Tech to sign with the Illini. He is the third-stringer this fall, behind Buchanan and Justin Staples.


"Coach told me all the time about the guys he had, what they did,'' Buchanan said. "He feels like I can be one of those, be a great player.''


NOTABLE: Make up your mind. While si.com picked the Illini to finish last in the Leaders Division earlier in the week, Sports Illustrated (the magazine edition) tabbed the Illini to place fourth in divisional play. The magazine predicted Illinois would end up with an 8-4 record overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin (10-2, 6-2) Ohio State (9-3, 5-3) and Penn State (8-4, 5-3). In the publication's online prediction, the Illini were tabbed to compile a 4-8 record overall and a 1-7 mark in the conference play. Like the internet report, Sports Illustrated placed coach Ron Zook on the hot seat. The magazine also tabbed Illini senior placekicker Derek Dimke as one of the league's players to watch. ... Wide receivers Arrelious Benn, Brandon Lloyd and Walter Young plus tight end Michael Hoomanawanui were named to the Illini's all-decade team representing from 2000 to 2010. ...  The Illini hold a scrimmage at 10 a.m. Saturday at Camp Rantoul. Rain may force a delay or a switch to facilities on campus. ... The Illini begin practice on campus next week. Those sessions are closed to the public and the media. 


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.