Vic Koenning coached the entire Illinois secondary while also coordinating the defense last year. He had to keep track of far more individuals at those four positions than he does now with the two inside linebackers. This change frees him to work more with the defense as a whole. Of course, he is still seeking answers at the two linebacker spots.
First and foremost, he lost third round NFL draft pick Martez Wilson a year early. A talented athlete like Wilson is hard to replace. Senior Ian Thomas and sophomore Brandon Denmark are the primary replacements.
"I think anyone losing a high draft pick is gonna have that same problem. It's a giant hole; he's a good player. We've got to find the things that we do best.
"There's gonna be some things that Denmark does that Ian can't do, and Ian does things that Brandon's not good at. Until we get the perfect specimen, we're gonna have to hunt and peck around. Mix and match may be the best thing to do at this point."
Thomas has vast experience, having played both inside positions extensively. He has also endured several injuries throughout his career. Hopefully, he is at full strength now and can fulfill his potential.
"I'm proud of him," Koenning explains. "He's starting to play like a linebacker. We've been coaching attitude in our room as hard as we've been coaching anything else. Ian made a few plays (this spring). It's partially because he did what he's supposed to do, and partially it's because he's starting to understand the defense finally."
"He's got so much more that he can do. I told the linebackers, 'If you guys do what you're supposed to do, then anything's possible. You can turn around in our meeting room, and there's a big Butkus Award there. We've got as many of those as anybody I know of. Anything's possible if you do what you're supposed to do.'
Denmark played sparingly at Bandit as a freshman before moving to inside linebacker for the Texas Bowl. He is tall, rangy and fast, but he is just beginning to learn the position.
"Brandon's got a ways to go. If he'll just keep trying, he's got the tools. It's new for him."
While Thomas is the clear leader there, Koenning expects to rotate them to keep both fresh.
"We have to keep working. Brandon Denmark, it gets to the point he does some things well. And Ian Thomas at different times, doing the things he does well.
"We could interchange them maybe on a run-pass sort of deal so we can keep both fresh, playing fast. Brandon Denmark has athletic ability, while Ian has the strength, experience. I think we can piece together one there."
The other inside linebacker spot will be shared by Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, both of whom were freshmen this past season. Brown got some experience in reserve last fall, while Bates redshirted.
"Brown is solid. He isn't a 4.4 guy, 250-pound guy. He has good instincts, a good feel. He is a well rounded guy. Right now more than any other guy, he understands the concepts of what we are trying to get accomplished than anyone else in the group. It all comes natural to him."
Bates played defensive end in high school, and he sacked the quarterback repeatedly this spring when allowed to blitz from the outside. He still has a lot to learn, but Koenning is impressed with his toughness.
"Houston Bates had a thigh bruise. A mortal might not have practiced, but he's so dadgum tough he went out there and limped around all day. Those guys are coming along."
As with the other linebacker position, Koenning expects Brown and Bates to share time.
"Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates should be able to give us a 60-40 deal at the other linebacker. Both stay fresh. I don't know that there is one guy you want out there 75-80 percent of the time.
"That's the best case scenario for us, someone gets dinged up and get those reps, it's probably be a good thing, everyone stays fresh. But that is, if we come along."
Brown will make a big play one minute and then hurt the team with a late hit the next. Can he mature into a reliable player for the Illini?
"If I don't choke him first. No, Jonathan is becoming like a fourth son to me. He's got things he can improve on every day, and I think he'll get there. As with Houston and Ian. And probably the biggest project is Brandon Denmark.
"Those guys have got to come along and play for us. That's the pressure you have as a position coach, getting all your guys to play well."
While he doesn't coach the strongside linebacker (SAM), it is an important position for the Illini defense. Last year's starter Nathan Bussey graduated. Do the Illini have an adequate replacement?
"Ashante Williams is doing okay, athletic guy, almost gives us a nickel deal. And we have to see how Earnest Thomas comes along. He shows signs of doing stuff well and shows signs of it being his first year.
"Ashante got a whole lot of reps last year. I think he's got a whole lot of potential. Athletically, he's probably a guy that can do more things than Bussey. He's a different type of player.
"I want to do more things than I did in the past at that position, at least we're trying to. We've got to see how far Earnest has come. Earnest has shown signs of starting to do stuff well, and then he has shown signs of being his first year. That's why we're out here practicing and learning stuff, for us to improve.
"We don't have any depth. We're two-deep there like a lot of positions. That's probably a position where we're gonna expect a freshman to come in and contribute."
After the Spring Game, Koenning saw growth with the linebackers, although consistency must be improved.
"I thought we made progress. There was a drive the second half where the linebackers were messing up. And then they stopped messing up, and we stopped them. We've got to do things right.
"I know that there's things that they do that hurt themselves. We've been very focused on footwork and body position. If you don't take yourself out of a play by poor technique, then you've got a better chance of making a play.
"There's some steadfast rules for playing linebacker. They're 100% rules. If you'll just understand them and use them, then it will put you in position to make a lot of plays."
Koenning discusses the Illini defense as a whole in part two of this interview.