Fighting Illini Defense 101, The Basics

This past season, the Fighting Illini defense took a huge step in the right direction to help rebuild the school's football program. It played a large role in helping the team return to a bowl for the first time since the 2008 Rose Bowl. First year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning led the way in this dramatic turnaround. His general philosophy is discussed in this article.

One of the main factors in Illinois's defensive turnaround was the difference in schemes and styles Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning employed. There were several key factors in the defense's revival, as well as transitions each position group had to undertake in order to make this defense tick.

Defensive Line

Even though it is probably one of the most important positions in the game of football, defensive linemen are also some of the more undervalued players in the game. The Illinois defensive linemen helped make the defensive transition much easier for the program.

Under Koenning's teachings, the defense line seemed to change dramatically from years past. Gone were the huge burly linemen who could clog gaps but had trouble getting up field to pressure opposing offenses. In its place, Illinois used a combination of fast and sometimes undersized lineman to get after it up front.

Many times during the season, the Illini could be seen in a traditional four man front, but their assignments had changed dramatically. In the past, the Illinois four man front would be required to do several things.

First of all, they had to read the play. Then they had to decide whether they needed to get up field or play a gap control style (plugging the gaps in between offensive lineman). This would be complicated by various stunts, slants and zone blitzes the line would have to worry about.

Under the Bandit-style defense, gone were the days of reading and reacting up front. One of the things Koenning has utilized since coming to Illinois is his theory of letting athletes be athletes.

The new-look Illinois defensive front four has a new set of rules. This new set of rules is pretty basic. The line, both interior and exterior linemen are to get up field, play fast, cause as much havoc as they can and make the tackle.

We saw very little stunting from the front four this past season, and that trend will probably continue as Illinois seeks speedy, athletic linemen. Koenning accentuated his defensive philosophy.

"We need to have our guys playing with their hair on fire, playing hard, playing aggressive and tackling. We try to get our guys to play electric."

This new style seems basic, but it has been effective wherever Koenning has gone. All throughout the offseason, the defensive line worked on speed off the ball and getting up field. This aggressive style helped some Illini have career years last fall. Corey Liuget's year under Koenning was so special, the junior defensive tackle became a first round NFL draft pick.

Liuget's presence this past season was a perfect example of the style Illinois is trying to play up front. Many times this past season, Illinois linemen could be seen shooting past their counterparts to create discomfort for the offense.

Koenning has spoken many times about the importance of his defensive linemen being aggressive and being playmakers up field.

"You have to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing to defend the spread. Because they're gonna put you in situations when, if you do blitz, they can identify it and can get one-on-one battles."

Linebackers

Last season, the Illinois linebacking core also took on a new role. In the past, linebackers were stuck in a basic 4-3 scheme (four down linemen and three linebackers lined up behind them). There was little aggressive play from the linebackers.

As Illinois moved into its new Bandit defense, linebackers were able to play a much more aggressive style that led to better play by their group and by the defense as a whole.

The Illini linebackers became much more unpredictable. Opposing defenses have to work to read the Illinois linebacking corps. This is because the Bandit defense lets guys move around a lot more than we have seen in other recent defensive schemes.

Last fall, you could often times see the Illinois linebackers shading to one side of the field or another. This shade depended on where Illinois used its "Bandit" linebacker. Typically, the Illini would bring an outside linebacker closer to the line of scrimmage on the strong side of the field.

The strong side of the field can be determined by several factors. Strength can be determined by formation (the most commonly used determination), side of the field, or to a certain player who was on the field.

Along with rolling over their linebackers to the line of scrimmage, the Illinois linebackers were also much more active. Koenning's scheme is one where there is more trickery and confusion from the linebackers.

Typically last fall, there would be at least one linebacker blitzing from all different angles of the field. Many times, the linebacker who was lined up to the strength side would blitz off the edge. This worked perfectly in the Penn State game when Nate Bussey, who was playing a hybrid safety/linebacker position, came off the edge on a blitz, tipped the quarterback's pass and then intercepted it for a score.

Often times on 2nd and 3rd downs, you could see multiple Illinois linebackers blitzing. These guys would come from different angles, depths and positions to keep the opposition off balance.

Former Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson excelled in the scheme and had the best year of his short career at Illinois. In the new scheme, Wilson was allowed to play much more freely than in years past.

Blitzing linebackers from all different areas has become a popular defensive trend over the past couple years. NFL defensive guru Dom Capers has specialized in having his linebackers come from all different angles.

It looks like Coach Koenning has this group well on its way to be reckoned with in the near future. With new schemes and blitz packages, this will be a group you will want to keep an eye on.

Defensive Backfield

Early on last season, the Illinois secondary knew it was going to have to make some adjustments to what they had originally planned. Illinois lost Supo Sanni and Steve Hull to early injuries, and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne was plagued by nagging injuries throughout the season.

When the season started, it looked as if Illinois was going to use more press coverage on the line to defend opposing wide receivers. In this style, cornerbacks play close to the line so they can immediately hit the opposing receiver on the line of scrimmage.

The defense hopes to knock the receivers off their directed routes or force them into areas of the field that benefit the Illini.

Once the injuries occurred, the defense had to learn on the fly. Cornerback Tavon Wilson moved from corner to safety because of the lack of depth at the position. Moving from offense to defense, Justin Green came over to play cornerback, a position he had not played since high school.

The changes in personnel caused the Illini to change schemes from their original plans. Instead of the aggressive press coverage, the Illini had to provide help for their corners from the safety position. Illinois rotated in between man coverage and various zone schemes in an attempt to keep the defense off balance.

Many times though, you could see the Illini playing a cover 2 zone scheme. In this defense, the corners would take the shorter routes run by the opposition. The longer routes would be covered by the safeties, who lined up deeper in the secondary.

Also, the Illini defense would roll up a safety every now and then. This rolled-up safety would act as a roving linebacker/safety. He would fall back into coverage or stay up on the line of scrimmage, depending on the opponent and its schemes.

Even though the Illini defense had its lapses this season, it played better than expected considering the inexperience and lack of depth. At times it looked confused, but comfort level improved as the season went on.

New secondary coach Mike Gillhamer works with a group that has much more maturity and confidence heading into the 2011 season. This will allow Koenning to institute a more aggressive style than occurred last fall.

If the backfield can cover man-to-man, more blitzing is possible. With more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, more turnovers are possible.

As Koenning establishes his entire system and develops depth, we should begin to see more of his preferred defensive style in 2011.


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