CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Heading into the season, the strength of the Illinois football program rests in its experienced defense.

Heading into the season, the strength of the Illinois football program rests in its experienced defense.   But when the Illini face Missouri in the season opener at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPN2), the Tigers' spread offense loaded with wide receivers and pass-catching tight ends could force the Illini into playing five or six defensive backs.   That could leave the game's outcome to players with less experience in the defensive secondary, while talented linebackers Brit Miller and Antonio Steele watch from the sidelines.   Illinois' personnel packages "will depend a little on what (the Tigers) do,'' Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "We'll get into a lot of five and six defensive backs. On the same token, you want to try to keep your best 11 players on the field.   "Antonio Steele and Britt Miller are two pretty good players who have played a lot. We have to make sure when we have them on the field, we have them in positions where they can be successful.''   Steele ranked 10th in the Big Ten in tackles last season with 85. Miller's time was limited against spread offenses last season.   "We're doing a lot of stuff differently,'' Miller said. "We decided that we're a three-linebacker team. We're going to go out and play with the best 11. Hopefully, when the time comes, we'll all be on the field. That's how we're working now. The nickel is banged up a little bit.   "I hope to get my hands on the ball, dive into the end zone and do a little Reggie Bush (impersonation).''   Defensive Leaders   Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory will run the defense from the press box by calling the plays on gameday, Zook said. Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch will work from the sidelines and signal the plays to the defense. Zook, a former defensive coordinator, will also offer his input between series.   "What I try to do is feel what they're trying to do to us,'' Zook said. Mallory's brother Mike was Zook's first defensive coordinator at Illinois in 2005. Last season, Vince Okruch served in the role before taking a leave of absence in July.   Punter   Four days before the season opener, Zook said he hadn't chosen a punter. In fact, he hadn't decided what two punters he would take to the game, even though redshirt freshman Anthony Santella and sophomore Jared Bosch appeared well ahead of scholarship sophomore Kyle Yelton.   Illinois ranked No. 117 among 119 teams in Division I last season in net punt at 29.4 yards per attempt.   Laugh Track   Defensive line coach Tom Sims will work from the sidelines this year, but Zook joked it was more a question of safety than strategy.   Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley "lobbied for that because of the press box,'' Zook said, drawing a chuckle during his weekly press conference. Sims, a former NFL defensive tackle, weighs in the vicinity of 300 pounds. Perhaps, Locksley joked, the press box isn't that safe.   Injury Report   Receiver Arrelious Benn wears the red jersey signifying he's off limits to contact during practice, but he will start against the Tigers.   "(Benn) is ready to go,'' Zook said. "He would have been ready to go last week.''   The only player out is backup slot receiver Chris James, who will undergo season-ending knee surgery next week. Fullback Russ Weil (ankle) is questionable. Safety Justin Sanders (groin) has been limited in practice. Cornerback Travon Bellamy (shoulder) returned to live drills.   Etc.   C.J. Jackson, the basketball forward who moved to the Illini football program as a tight end, now works on the scout team at offensive tackle. He's not expected to see playing time soon, Zook said. … St. Louis officials hope for a crowd of 60,000 for the Illinois-Missouri game, although about 50,000 tickets had been sold as of last weekend.   John Supinie can be reached at