Vic Koenning Talks Progress of Defense

The Fighting Illini football team is 2-1 on the young season, and it is playing better with each game. Most defensive statistics rank in the top half of the Big 10, but the schedule gets much tougher beginning next weekend. Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sees progress, but he knows they have a long way to go to reach his preferred level of play.

Illinois ranked fifth in the Big 10 in total defense after three games, but Vic Koenning believes it could have been much better.

"We're doing okay. There were 6 plays in that last game that accounted for 185 yards, and they were things like not turning the ball back to the other backer. Pretty simple things, it seems like.

"And they had a guy that could go over the top and make a play, and that's a little disconcerting. We did bust one coverage, and it cost us a 42 yard touchdown pass. Those are correctable things.

"We have to be better. We can't spill the ball to nobody or get too outside. If we could have somehow not have those six plays, then maybe we'd have held them to three points and 200 yards and been a performance we'd been proud about."

Koenning is willing to share his thoughts openly about his defense. His emotions sometimes get the better of him, but he is frank about the improvement that needs to be made. To him, the rankings mean little right now.

"Yeah, but it's early in the year. We're not where we need to be, not at any position. So we're just striving to get a lot better. If we can just keep the focus on improving every day, down the road we'll get where we need to be."

After a couple tumultuous weeks when several defensive starters were lost for part or all of the season, those who were moved to new positions have had two weeks to acclimate without further trauma. Are the changes beginning to bring stability to the defense?

"Yeah maybe a little bit. We do need to get some guys back. It would really help us to get Terry (Hawthorne) back, (Mike) Buchanan back and some guys like that. We'll see how that all goes. We don't know where we're at with that. We do need to get fresh and get healthy. We're beat up."

Illini fans assume Hawthorne will be back in the starting lineup the moment doctors clear him for action. But Koenning expects to rotate him in slowly.

"Yeah, probably. That's common sense, the logical thing to do. Hopefully we don't get to where we have to play him more than just a few plays to keep the other guys fresh.

"We've had to ride the horses. We don't have any depth in the secondary or at a lot of positions. So we're having to play a lot of snaps. You start thinking about those guys that play 25-30 plays of special teams also. So you've got guys playing full speed 80 plays a game. We're not gonna last very long doing that.

"We've got to develop some depth, and we've got to get some needed guys healthy. This has not been exactly what we started out with, but it's the hand we're dealt. We need to get better and not feel sorry for ourselves."

Without tremendous talent and depth, Illini defenders can't afford to take plays off. Koenning must demand maximum effort from them at all times to have a chance for success.

"If we don't go full throttle, hammer down petal to the floor, we're not very good. The only way we're gonna survive is to be full throttle. I think we're getting a little closer to understanding that.

"We can't be anything but full go because what happened the other day, we must have relaxed a little bit, didn't turn the quarterback back, and he goes down the field for 70 yards in three plays to score a touchdown.

"Thank goodness our offense came back and won the game for us. That's why it's a team; the offense bailed us out. We've got a lot of room to improve. We'd better or we're not gonna win many games."

Players learn from mistakes, but Koenning would rather the Illini develop confidence from successful play. He reflects again on the NIU game to make his point.

"I don't think failure teaches you anything except humility. We need to get some swagger obviously going into the Big 10 and not make simple mistakes like that.

"It's simple, just stay outside, not just on that one play but on some other plays. The long pass we practiced, I don't know, a hundred times from the start of camp. I don't know where that mistake came from but it happened. Hopefully we learned from that and won't make it again."

Senior defensive end Clay Nurse moved to Bandit after Buchanan was suspended. How is he coming along at the new position?

"It isn't perfect, but none of our guys were perfect in the game. I thought he tried to play hard. A couple mistakes could have really hurt us, but other guys compensated and made plays. We needed him over there, and we need him to be a really solid, good player.

"We have a lot of guys who lined up and played last year who aren't here right now. Not all of them were anything we did, it's just the way it goes. We can't afford to not have some of our better players playing their best. So we need Clay to keep accelerating his level of play and get better and better and better. I feel confident he'll do that."

Illini Nation has seen a big improvement in defensive fundamentals. Precise tackling, taking good angles to the ball and swarming the ball carrier, laying the wood to discourage offensive players are all better than in 2009. Koenning is a stickler for fundamentals and continues to practice them daily.

"I can't speak for the past. I know we work on them really hard. We've got to continue to do that. Just like in that game the other day, just not having the proper leverage can cost you. We need to continue to stress that.

"We have to be really demonstrative about doing all those things right and coaching it correctly. I think we're trying extremely hard to get that done. Hopefully results will come by it."

Koenning says the players needed some time off, and the bye week fit the bill.

"The bye comes at a great time. We're beat up physically and emotionally. We put a lot into the Missouri game and the Southern Illinois game and the Northern Illinois game. We treated every game like it was the Super Bowl for us.

"I think you saw at the beginning of the Northern Illinois game. For whatever reason, those guys were ready to riot. We were ready to go, so there were some emotions spent.

"To their credit, our guys have gotten themselves fairly ready to play. We've got some youth and inexperience. That word 'experience' means learning from mistakes. We have some mistakes, and we have to learn from them. Hopefully those mistakes don't cost us football games."

Koenning is like an Army general. He understands the fortunes of war and how advancement must be earned at great expense of time and energy.

"I don't want us to give up challenging for every yard. Every piece of real estate is so hard to come by. It's just like in the Army. They fight, fight, fight for days to get 100 yards. And then they retreat 100 yards and have to fight to get it back. The same way, we don't want to give up anything."

The first three Big 10 opponents for Illinois are Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, three of the top conference teams. Koenning is aware of the obstacles that lie ahead.

"We know we have a tough schedule coming up. Even my nine-year-old was reading off the schedule and said, 'Hey, you guys have a tough schedule.' No joke. Ohio State's really, really good. We've been studying as hard as we can, and we haven't cracked the code yet. I don't know if anybody has against those guys.

"But we can't lose sight of today and tomorrow as opportunities to get better. The games will be here before we know it. We can't worry about those. We've got to worry about getting better."

"You're only as good as your last outing. Every day in practice we're just trying to get better. We're just concentrating on the next practice and the next opportunity to get better."

"That's one thing I think we're doing. We're pushing our guys really hard and expecting every day to be as good as they can be. If we keep doing that we'll have good results. We'll be as good as we can, and that's all we can ask of our players."

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