Vic Koenning came to Illinois a year ago to upgrade the defense. While injuries and depth problems took their toll, he helped the Illini to seven victories and the respect that comes with success.
With 15 extra practices preceding the Texas Bowl, Koenning was able to rekindle lost confidence and add wrinkles that helped the Illini whip Baylor in the bowl game. He was pleased with the progress.
"The proof is in the pudding, as they say. We played very fast. We weren't perfect, but you're never gonna be perfect. We couldn't prepare in camp for how fast those guys were. We knew that was gonna be an issue. Once we kind of got our footing a little bit, I think we did all right.
"Our guys played extremely hard. We got fortunate on a few plays. Receivers got inside of us or got over the top of us, but we knew that was gonna happen because they did it against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and Texas A and M and everyone they played. We knew they were faster than us, and we knew we would be holding onto our tail a little bit."
With Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III off target on his long bombs, the Illini were able to contain their offense.
"When you're throwing the ball 50-60 yards down the field, with the margin of error they might get one, but odds are you don't get that many. And when you do that, you open yourself up for pressure. And we were able to get some pressure.
"Our guys played fast, and that was the best thing. We were fresh, and we hadn't been fresh like that in a long time. It was great to see them fresh.
"I think the fact that we had a couple days off around Christmas gave them a chance to get their legs. We didn't take them to Houston to wear them out. We just kind of polished up a little bit before the game."
Koenning also learned from the Michigan game. Having his players play passively to prevent scampers from a speedy quarterback backfired in Ann Arbor. Some changes were necessary.
"We changed some of the thought process. They were a similar offense to Michigan in some respects. But obviously Michigan was a debacle. Not only did we not execute well, but we when we executed we didn't make any plays either.
"So we had to go a little bit different wrinkle just so our guys would have confidence. If they saw the same stuff, they wouldn't have confidence in it. We had to be concerned with the middle aspect too."
Many college football fans clamor for more games and a playoff to determine a national champion. But football is a violent sport, and the human body does not recover quickly from all the abuse it takes during a season. There is a limited number of scholarship players available, so attrition creates depth problems.
The Illini didn't have much depth to begin with in 2010, but playing 8 straight games against quality Big 10 foes complicated matters for Koenning.
"What nobody really understands except in here, we played a lot of games where we didn't have backups. We had Glenn Foster to back up two positions on the front. Corey Liuget had to play both tackle positions.
"Jonathan Brown a freshman was backup to Ian Thomas (at WILL). Ian didn't play too much, and we didn't have Jonathan up to speed yet. We felt like every time we put in a backup MIKE, it was a touchdown. So Martez Wilson played too much.
"The secondary was even worse. We didn't have a backup for Tavon Wilson. I was gonna call a defense where I halfway closed my eyes. We just didn't have any backups. To their credit, those kids sucked it up and played. But you can tell that they got tired.
"What happened in the bowl game, we had Steve Hull. Finally his ankle was healthy enough to do something. Terry Hawthorne was able to practice. What happened in a few of those game where he came in and gave us some snaps toward the end, he hadn't practiced because he had a broken foot that wasn't completely healed. Terry was able to practice and get prepared to play well.
"So we had some depth, and we were able to rotate some guys. You could tell in the fourth quarter. Guys came up and said, 'Coach, this is the first time all season we had anything left in the fourth quarter.'
"So that's something we've got to address as coaches and make sure we build for that. It's something we tried to do and had great success doing in the past, but we just didn't have that this year. We're gonna try to do that this next year."
The bowl practices allowed younger players a chance to get some reps and showcase their abilities.
"We were able to work some younger guys and some guys we were trying to redshirt. We think they're gonna be pretty good and give us what we're looking for."
In part two of a three-part interview, Koenning discusses those younger players and how the defensive depth chart stacks up as spring ball begins.