Defensive Prospects As Spring Ball Begins

The Fighting Illini football team enters spring practices with a defense that is beginning to develop some depth and experience. But it misses two outstanding players who departed a year early for the NFL draft. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning talks about the continuing process of developing a top defense in part two of a three-part interview.

Illinois will miss defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson. They chose to forego their one remaining year of eligibility for the NFL draft. As a result, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has to adapt his approach to get the most out of remaining players.

"First of all, you can't replace two first-day draft pick guys. Nobody can. Ohio State can't, despite the level they recruit at. Alabama's not gonna be as good if you have guys in a place like that. So we'll be different.

"We've got to try to get a grasp of what our guys do well and try to do that a lot and work on our weaknesses. We have a ton of things to work on. We didn't even scratch the surface on this package as far as the multiple things we can do. But we don't want to get to things we can't do. The bottom line is we've got to do what our guys do best.

"We will have a better grasp of that this year. We do have some things that we're gonna do differently. Hopefully we'll be successful. We're gonna have a pretty good offense to go against every day in the spring. So it'll be a challenge for us."

Koenning must be a psychologist in addition to teacher and strategist. Football is a game of confidence; his continuing challenge it to make his players aware of their abilities and help them maintain confidence levels.

"When you start doubting yourself, then you've got no chance. That's something that we've got to work on. That was a big point of emphasis for me (last season), getting the guys to believe they could do it. Once they started realizing they could do it, then we started playing better.

"And then we kind of had an issue where we forgot how we were doing it. We had a bad game and lost our confidence again. We had to start all over building them back.

"Nothing comes easy, and we've all got to remember that you've got to build it one brick at a time. If you start skipping some spots, you're gonna come back and have issues. It will be easier this year in the respect the guys have heard this stuff before, and they know what's expected better."

Koenning is now coaching inside linebackers, replacing new Southern Mississippi defensive coordinator Dan Disch. He will have two scholarship athletes available for both the middle or MIKE linebacker and the WILL or weakside spot this spring.

"It appears that's gonna be the case. As a staff, we've talked about having Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates at WILL, and Ian Thomas and Brandon Denmark at MIKE. Brandon played MIKE at the bowl practices. And then having the young guys come in at three. That's pretty customary."

Last year Koenning was responsible for the secondary. So he spoke about the personnel at those four positions while new secondary coach Mike Gillhamer gets better acquainted with the players. He is encouraged to have more bodies with which to work including safety Supo Sanni, back after losing a year to Achilles tendon surgery.

"I think we should have a lot more depth than we had. Now Supo can get where he can practice. I think he'll still be limited some. You've got he and Steve Hull and Trulon Henry there at safety."

Will redshirt freshmen Fritz Rock and Ean Days have a chance to earn playing time at safety this spring?

"We've got to find what they do best. Fritz is 212, 215 right now. He might be better suited at a SAM. Ean's really coming along. They say he's doing a lot of really good things. We need him to process stuff. He was a rookie last year, and he acted like a rookie in practice."

Cornerback had minimal depth last year. Koenning expects more quality and quantity there also.

"If we move Tavon Wilson back to corner, which is what he wants to do, then that'll make the corner positions pretty solid too. You've got Terry (Hawthorne), Justin Green. Those are three guys that have started a lot.

"Pat Nixon-Youman was a guy we used as a utility guy. I called him my dadgum Swiss army knife. He had to be able to do everything last year. He may play some safety in the spring. Jack Ramsey practiced for bowl preparations at corner.

"So right now, we at least have guys that can run out there for a two-deep instead of having one guy take the ones and the twos."

Miami Thomas helped defeat Ohio State in the magical 2007 season before losing two full years to two knee and two shoulder surgeries. Will he ever be able to help at corner?

"Miami is out there practicing. He's got some things he's got to prove he can get through. We'll see how he does. He read the quarterback well on some plays (in 2007). That was the long and the short of it. He's got a belief in himself, and you've got to have that. If you don't have that, you can't play."

The 2011 recruiting class should add additional depth this summer. There are a number of defensive players who will have a chance to prove worthy in Camp Rantoul.

"We're gonna have some young guys we're gonna count on a lot, especially on the front."

In part three, Koenning talks about those young guys.

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