Koenning New Illini Defensive Coordinator

Fighting Illini football coach Ron Zook announced the hiring of Vic Koenning to be his new defensive coordinator Friday. Koenning comes from his alma mater Kansas State to rejuvenate a moribund Illini defense. A former head coach who has had national recognition for his defenses, Koenning will be hitting the ground running.

Illinois football coach made the following statement when introducing Vic Koenning as his new offensive coordinator:

"I am very excited about this hiring. Vic has had great success wherever he has been and has tremendous experience rebuilding defensive units. When you talk to him, you can't help but see his passion for the game and get excited about playing for him. He will be a great addition to this staff."

Koenning was exhausted after a whirlwind 48 hours in which he made the decision to accept the Illinois position despite an 11th hour attempt by Georgia to snatch him away. He arrived late Thursday night and is looking forward to the opportunity.

"First of all, I'd like to tell you how excited I am to be here," Koenning stated. "You have an adrenalin rush when you come into a place like this. The excitement level the coach brings, it's a rare opportunity. Timing is everything, and the timing has worked out fantastic. This is a great opportunity for my family and myself, and we're really looking forward to taking advantage of it.

"I'm ready to jump in there with Coach Zook and watch recruiting tape, games from last year and get going. There's a time table, and we've got to get some organization done."

The Oklahoma native admits there will be a learning curve since he has no Big 10 experience.

"It helps to have some familiarity with the league and the teams in it. That will be something the defensive staff will have to work on. I'll obviously hang a lot of credit on Coach Zook and the staff for what's been done before. But I've got a lot of learning to do. I'm glad I came into this league."

As co-defensive coordinator at his alma mater, it was hard to say goodbye to Kansas State.

"I don't think there were some people who were happy with me. They'll probably take my pictures off the walls. I did know that it was a much-needed change for me. It was something I felt I needed to do.

"I am a very religious guy, and I prayed really hard. I felt in my heart this was something I needed to do. My wife and I talked about it, and I put a lot of value in what my wife and my parents say. That's the way I was brought up, so here I am."

The Georgia involvement threatened the proceedings, but Koenning remained focused on Illinois.

"There was some dialogue. It made for an interesting last 16-18 hours. But when push came to shove, the drive and enthusiasm that Coach Zook exhibited made sure there was no doubt in the outcome. Coach Zook's diligence and his enthusiasm, and his integrity impressed me so much. We have so much respect for him and the way things have been handled."

As defensive coordinator at Clemson from 2005-2008, the Tigers finished in the top 25 nationally in scoring, total and pass efficiency defense all four years. And he helped K-Statels defense improve tremendously. Still, he was humble about his accomplishments.

"The last 5-6 years, I've been blessed to have some good players and some good coaches around me, and I've been in a good environment where we could play good defense. I think when you're reaching the goals that you set, and when you're getting closer to them, I think people acknowledge that and try to reach out and try to tag onto some of that.

"I learned when I was at Wyoming that I didn't have the magic dust to sprinkle. I think it has to do with recruiting players and how those guys grow and develop as a team."

Koenning was the head coach at Wyoming for three years from 2000-2002. His lack of success there helped him appreciate the role of assistant coaches in helping a program succeed. And he learned a lot about organization.

"It helps me understand what he (Zook) is going through. We've talked a lot the last few days about situations, and I can relate exactly. I can understand instead of question things. I can try to cut things off.

"That's our role as assistant coaches I think, to be there to keep things from going through the head coach. Let the head coach be the head coach, be the motivator and the driving force and rallying point.

"We (assistant coaches) are the guys that need to be out there making sure (the players) do things right, making sure they're going to class, making sure they're lifting, and making sure they're doing their assignments. We need to do our role."

Koenning says his defensive philosophy has much in common with Zook, but he will be allowed to make some adjustments as time goes on.

"My number one thing is I expect the guys to play hard and do everything to the utmost, whether it's going to school, being a good person, doing everything they can the best they can.

"And then when you start talking about the X's and O's, we need to understand that this is Coach Zook's program. We are going to do things that don't stray too far from the philosophies and the foundation that's been built. He's a fantastic football coach and has a great track record.

"I've also talked to him about being able to bring some differences. He's been very open and very honest and upfront in wanting that. I think we're gonna have a framework that allows us to do the things we need to do to be successful.

"If it's blitz, I'm all for it. I think the players love to do that sometimes. But we need to have them with the mentality that when you're bringing three, it needs to look like we're bringing six.

"We need to have our guys playing with their hair on fire, playing hard, playing aggressive and tackling. It goes back to running and tackling and being fundamentally sound. And all those things will take care of itself.

"I've been kind of an 8-man front kind of guy. I like to try and stop the run first. If you don't stop the run, you don't stop anything. But I also understand in this day and age that the pass is an important thing, and we're gonna work hard to be able to stop what teams do well and then work from there."

After the press conference, Koenning said he wasn't sure yet what position he would coach on the defense.

"I don't know yet. I think that we want to get together and talk about where everybody feels best about. The head coach is the head coach. I think we all want to do what is the best situation. I'm comfortable with linebackers, and I'm comfortable with the secondary."

Koenning is adaptable to his personnel.

"I've coached defenses that led the country in interceptions, and I've coached defenses that were second in the country in sacks. I've coached defenses where we blitzed every other snap.

"But most of the time, we're gonna try to be multiple and not let them know exactly what we're doing. But we can't be unsound, and we can't confuse our players. We need to make sure our guys understand football, have the concepts down and then just let them play."

He expanded further on his defensive philosophy.

"We want to make sure we have more players than they have whether the ball's being run or thrown. Some people will refer to it as an 8-man front. If they have a one-back set, then a 7-man front will give you more than they have. We want to have more than they've got. I think it gives you a better chance to be successful."

Illinois defenses have been near the bottom of the Big 10 yearly in interceptions. Since some of his teams have recorded double-digit interceptions, Koenning was asked how he wants his secondary to play the pass.

"We don't want them to catch it, so you've got to crawl before you can walk. We don't want them to catch the ball and then make the tackle. Of course, we don't want them to be in position to interfere. You teach fundamentals and players make plays.

"After awhile, it's not the X's and O's, it's the Jimmys and Joes. You've got to go out and recruit guys that can make plays. That's what so much of football is these days, putting guys in space and letting them make plays."

Illini defenses haven't stopped the spread in recent times, but more college teams are reverting to a pro style offense. Have defenses caught up with the spread?

"I don't think so. I just think some people have different ideas. I think the spread, if you have a dominant pass rush defensive end where he can get pressure without blitzing, or you have a couple of those guys, I think that allows you to cover a spread. If you can't get pressure, then you're gonna struggle with it.

"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. That's where they'll have you. That being said, you can't not blitz. You have to still be in attack mode where they don't know what you're doing by disguising it."

If you were to create a defense from scratch, what position would you recruit first?

"A defensive lineman is the hardest to find. They're drafted the highest every year. And I think if you can't cover and they can just throw the ball and win all the one-on-one battles outside, then you're in a bind. So you've got to start with d-line and then secondary and then linebacker.

"Everybody's got different philosophies. We've got to find the best people and best athletes we can and then grow a little bit."

Koenning sounds like a dedicated recruiter. He has contacts all over the country and plans to use them. He wants to recruit the best players possible.

"(I'll go) wherever the players are. We want to find the best players and the best people. We're gonna sit down and have some recruiting meetings and talk about that. I'm comfortable wherever I need to go."

What were his recruiting territories for Clemson and Kansas State?

"I had territories in South Georgia, the Florida Panhandle, and South Alabama. I had that territory plus East Texas and eastern Oklahoma at Kansas State.

"I've got some good familiarity with those coaches down there. There are a few players that I could probably go in and, if they're better than the guys we're looking at on the top of our recruiting board, I trust being able to go in there and trying to snag some of them. I hope so."

It takes awhile to develop a recruiting territory for a new school.

"It's name familiarity. I know there's one flight a day into Champaign from Dallas. I've already checked that. So we can get them on that one flight. I think a lot of players in Texas, especially the players outside the metropolitan areas, I think they'll be fantastic fits here. I know in Bo Schembechler's days at Michigan, they had a whole bunch of Houston players.

"We want to go out there and recruit the best players and best people, ones who can achieve academically what's expected of them. I'm almost positive talking to Coach Zook for a few days, that they've worked inside out. They want to hit this area thoroughly and then go to outer regions from there."

Koenning is an enthusiastic and passionate defensive coach, and he is looking forward to upgrading the Illini defense. But that must start with improved recruiting, and he begins that process immediately.

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