Second Year In System Aids Illini Defense

The Fighting Illini football team went through a major transformation on both offense and defense last year. New coordinators brought new ideas, but it took time for the players to learn new systems and play instinctively. Now in his second year, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has advantages unavailable to him last season.

Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning had to teach all his defensive players his style of defense last year. But he also had to teach his coaches as only Ron West had worked with him previously. Now, the upperclassmen and most of the coaches are acclimated. It makes a big difference.

"It's been easier in some respects. I haven't been teaching coaches what to do, except for Mike Gillhamer. I've been going over stuff with him. But the guys know pretty much everything.

"It isn't like you're teaching coaches and players. When the coaches don't know the nuances of it, you have to double up on everything. So it's been a lot better. You can focus on your position."

Koenning coached the secondary last year but moved to linebacker when Dan Disch was hired as defensive coordinator at Southern Miss. He is benefitting from the change.

"Last year, I was working with 14 guys, making sure they were taking care of business, doing their homework and study halls. Now there's six guys; it's a vacation. So I can really, really stay on their butts."

However, he hasn't lost contact with his previous group. Koenning is a heart-based coach who emotes his feelings toward his players readily. It is his nature to give of himself to them, and they respond in kind.

"I'm blessed to have the opportunity to have the dbs to have a good respect and appreciation for me, and I love them to death. There's that bond. And then I have a linebacker bond because they're in that same situation.

"There's a real good love and appreciation for a good bit of the defense that you don't have if you just stay at one position. Now I'm sitting there texting 18-19 guys back and forth all day every day. How're you doing, what're you doing? It makes it even more enjoyable I guess."

Koenning always worries about the imperfections, and that sometimes colors his response to media questions. But overall he sees improvement from last fall to now.

"For the most part, our guys know what to do. When guys are making mistakes now, most everybody knows it. So they get frustrated with each other, and we've got to make sure we keep everybody on the same page.

"That's a good thing because you've got that pressure within the team to do well. I think that's a good start to developing leadership."

The Illini in 2010 faltered defensively midseason as a lack of depth took its toll. Starters played too many minutes and tired late in the game. Koenning has been emphasizing a group effort, especially with the loss of last year's superstars Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson.

"What we've got to do is develop strength in numbers. We've got to keep telling them that. We're gonna have to do that in the front and at linebacker and in the secondary.

"What happens is, we're gonna have to play fast, fresh and hard until guys develop into what Martez was and into what Corey was. Right now, there's a bunch of guys that we're trying to get the most out of them. They're still in the developmental process.

Koenning will substitute more freely this fall to keep players fresh. Might that also mean situational substitutions?

"It means that, and it means a guy may go 8 plays and we sub a guy. We've got to stay fresh. Last year we didn't have depth at a bunch of positions; we didn't have a backup. It didn't matter if you got dinged up or got a pinched nerve, you had to stay in because we didn't have anybody else.

"So that was a big goal of the spring. That's why it was important the two's went against the one's a lot because that's how they're gonna get better."

There appears to be more depth this year at most positions, although inexperience is a problem at a few spots. The Illini evaluated numerous combinations throughout the spring to learn how best to use personnel.

"It's a real mix and match. We've got to have competition. We'll see who's gonna step up and who's gonna struggle. Who's gonna shoot 80 on the last day of the Masters and who's gonna shoot 66 and birdie the last four holes? We want those guys who will birdie the last four holes. We want to see who under pressure is gonna step up."

Koenning mentioned cornerbacks Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green as having the best springs. Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan, Trulon Henry, Pat Nixon-Youman, Jonathan Brown and Ashante Williams were named among those who blew hot and cold but had their moments. He looks forward to getting safety Supo Sanni back to full speed.

"I guess what you hear me saying is a bunch of guys. But it's a bunch of guys we need to win and lose with."

The defensive line is a concern. Koenning hopes converted offensive lineman Craig Wilson can provide a lift at tackle.

"He's a big old guy, and he brings something different. He doesn't always stay in his right gap. But what he's been doing is penetrating because he's so big. So we understand that, and we're trying to learn how to fit off of him. It's a little bit different deal for us. We're working on it. He's not unathletic for a 340 pound guy.

"He's getting better every day. As long as he continues to improve, we're gonna have to have him be a factor for us. No question."

Whatever he might lack in superstars, Koenning hopes to make up with experience and added complexity to the defense. He feels the knowledge base is there. He hopes the players made efforts to improve their own potential this summer.

"We just need to continue to get better, each guy. I think now we can focus individually on each player, try to get them stronger and more flexible. Continue that knowledge of what we're doing."

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