- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Michael Buchanan knows the recent history on the Illinois defensive line.
Two years ago, tackle Corey Liuget had a breakthrough junior season and parlayed that into a first-round NFL draft status. Last season, Whitney Mercilus went from an unheralded player to a consensus All-American and the FBS sack leader, prompting him to leave early for the NFL.
Will the Illini have a defensive lineman blossom into a national force for a third straight year? Buchanan hopes so.
"I think we're starting to develop a tradition there," he said. "First it was Corey, then Whitney, and I feel like it's my time now. I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself to step up."
If 2012 is Buchanan's year, then he won't be coming out of nowhere.
While Mercilus got all the headlines for his 16 sacks, Buchanan had a standout season at the other defensive end spot. A second-year starter as a junior, he finished fourth in the league with 7.5 sacks and was ninth in tackles for loss at 13.5. His production helped keep offenses from double-teaming Mercilus all the time.
"I like to think I was a threat on the other side," he said.
Buchanan played the "bandit" spot -- a kind of linebacker/defensive end hybrid role -- in former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's scheme. He said new defensive coordinator Tim Banks has the Illini doing similar things as last year so far in spring practice, though the players have had to learn all new terminology. Buchanan is hoping to line up as a traditional pass rusher a little more this season.
To do so, he's trying to bulk up. He's put on about 10 pounds this offseason to get up to 250, which is still lean on his 6-foot-6 frame. He'd like to get a little heavier before the fall.
"I'm a taller guy, so obviously I've been working on staying low," he said. "I'm learning about the game more, about how to read offensive tackles and what types of things they're going to do to me this year."
If Buchanan needed a lesson on how to develop into a superstar, all he had to do was look Mercilus' way last year.
"I learned how to play every play watching him," Buchanan said. "Whit had an unbelievable motor that lot of our guys need to mirror. He did a great job of playing every play even in practice. He was a leader on and off the field, and that's one of the things I'm trying to turn myself into."
Despite the loss of Mercilus and the departure of Koenning, Buchanan said he thinks the Illinois defense can maintain the high level of play it turned in all of last season. If he is not the breakout star along the line, perhaps it will be junior tackle Akeem Spence.
"I think he's going to have a great year," Buchanan said. "He's the strongest guy on our team, and he looks even faster and more explosive this spring. He's trying to learn the game more and step up and be a leader. His whole maturity level has changed, and his approach to the game so far has been great."
Both those guys were overshadowed by Mercilus last year. But using recent history as a guide, one of them has a chance to step into the spotlight in 2012.