Ron West brings a wealth of knowledge and experience as the new outside linebackers coach at Illinois. He has coached both offense and defense during his 30 years in college ball. His first coaching job after serving as a graduate assistant at Livingston College was at East Carolina. He also had stints at North Texas, Texas Tech, and Louisiana-Lafayette before returning to his alma mater Clemson.
West spent ten years at Clemson, five as offensive line coach and five as outside linebackers coach. He worked with Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning when he held the same position at Clemson. West joined the Illini after one year at Tulsa.
Since joining the Illini, he has been working to help install new defensive concepts, evaluating Illini players during winter conditioning and getting started on recruiting. There hasn't been time for a personal life.
"A lot of changes, a lot to do," West admits. "I haven't had a chance to get my wife moved yet. We're trying to sell a home. It's part of the transition. What helps me is my kids are grown. My daughter's in Clemson Nursing School. She's 23. And then my son is 27 and a defensive coordinator at a high school in Texas.
"So it's just me and my wife right now. My wife was here once. She and my daughter have been here to see everything. Once everything gets settled, it will be a lot better. I'm living in a motel now."
Job changes can be traumatic, but West did his homework. He knows what he is getting at Illinois. He leaves no doubt as to his biggest reason for accepting the new assignment.
"Number one is Coach Zook. He's got a tremendous reputation in college football and professional football. He's a great coach. I liked the idea of working for a coach who had been defensive coordinator for the Saints and had coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Head coach at Florida. He's done a great job here.
"He didn't have a great year this year. It's obvious he knows that. He was very honest about that. As far as being competitive here, the guy's beaten Penn State, he's beaten Michigan two times in a row, he's beaten Ohio State. He's beaten pretty much everyone in the league. The man has done a pretty good job here. When he called and gave me an opportunity to come, it was a neat deal."
There were other reasons as well, including a chance to reunite with Koenning.
"It's been a little different, but it's been an easy transition for me because defensively we're doing what we did at Clemson. There are some changes off of that, but very similar to what we did defensively. So that has been the easier part of it.
"I worked with him (Coach Vic) 4 and 1/2 years at Clemson. And then I knew him when he was a coach at Memphis and I was defensive coordinator at Louisiana Lafayette. We played each other.
"I've had associations with the guys on the staff a few times. And I actually talked to Coach Zook about five years ago about a position here. It was on the phone, and we didn't go anywhere with it."
The new Illini defense will be somewhat different than the past, but West has been pleased with the speed of the team and feels the transition will go smoothly.
"I think it's gonna be fine. We're all gonna do what they can do. That's been Coach Vic's philosophy for years and years. We'll take them to where we can take them, what they can learn and then hone it down. We'll show them a lot and then hone down and really concentrate on the things they can do best.
"We think we have more speed than we thought we would have. We feel like we can run very well. That's a credit to Coach Zook and his staff and the young men they recruited. We're gonna build a scheme around speed."
Much of the defense will be based on versatility and deception. It will have the flexibility to adapt to the different styles of offense and the various situations that occur during games. It requires some new definitions and concepts. West works with two positions.
"I coach the SAM (strongside) backer, and I'll coach the Bandit. Everyone says it's a 4-2-5, but our Bandit linebacker can also stand up like we did with Gaines Adams at Clemson.
"The Bandit linebacker is always gonna be opposite of the SAM. In our base scheme, if we play a two back team, the SAM linebacker would be on the field, and the Bandit would be on the boundary. So if we play a four-down front, then our Bandit would be the 5-technique in the boundary. He could be a down guy, or he could be an up guy depending on the size of the kid and the personality of the kid.
"The Bandit is a hybrid defensive end. In some alignments, you would think we'd be in a five man front because the SAM linebacker would be on the line too. He's gonna be a little bit wider, but there will be five guys. Plus you have secondary guys that run routes."
Using customary terminology, the Illini now have just three positions that are always down linemen.
"Right. The Bandit can be a down lineman, or he can be a linebacker. In our scheme, we'll do things like bring an inside backer. If pass shows, we'll drop the SAM. And then the Bandit will still drop. That makes us a 3-4."
Just as the Bandit is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, the SAM is a hybrid linebacker/safety.
"The SAM is probably going to be no different than what you had last year. But right now we're trying to find SAMs that can play nickel. Like we did at Clemson, this guy was more of a speed guy. He's a guy we can blitz, he's a guy we can cover with, play man coverage with. He's a guy that can come off the edge.
"At Clemson one year, the guy we had there was Tremaine Billie, who was the South Carolina state champ in the 100 meters. The last guy that played SAM for me at Clemson was DeAndre McDaniel, who led the ACC in sacks at safety this year. He played backup safety behind Michael Hamlin for a year. Hamlin's playing for the Cowboys, and he was All-ACC safety.
"McDaniel wasn't gonna be able to get on the field, so we moved him to SAM. He started for me at SAM backer when Tremaine Billie graduated and did real well. But then they moved him back to safety this year, and he led the ACC in interceptions. So that's the kind of athlete he is."
With changes in function and responsibility, some Illini players may be learning new positions this spring. West says the coaching staff has not finalized all these changes yet.
"We are in the evaluation stage now. The off-season program, doing all those agility drills, is perfect to evaluate. So there's a lot of possibilities."
West was reluctant to name names, with one exception.
"We're looking at some guys on the team that could work out at the Bandit. We'll have to wait and see. We moved Mike Buchanan over there. He'd be playing at end as a speed rusher at times. We'd like to have a guy at that spot who has height because when we drop him in the boundary, we can get underneath routes.
"We played Rickey Sapp there at Clemson the last two years after Gaines Adams graduated. He's 6'-5" and Gaines was 6'-6". Mike's 6'-5 and 3 quarters. Taller guys can defend more space, especially if they drop off the line. They get in the throwing lanes.
"You go back and look at Gaines, when he was with Tampa he picked off a pass to beat Chicago. Julius Peppers, who the Chicago Bears took, was the same type of kid. He was a speed rusher, but he rushed and dropped and caught passes. Same type of athlete."
The Illini defense may take awhile to evolve into an outstanding unit, but it will certainly be more complex for offenses to attack.
"Sometimes we'll line up as a 4-3, sometimes as a 3-4, and sometimes as a 4-2. When you're multiple schemed, you create more problems for the offense. We do a real good job of disguising it. We're looking for guys who are versatile and do more than one thing so we can disguise things."
Does this Illinois team have the athleticism and versatility to pull off these changes?
"We do. We feel like we're better than we were the first year we put this scheme in at Clemson as far as the speed. We feel like we've got a real good chance. We're learning what we need to build."
In part 2, West talks about recruiting and all the selling points the University of Illinois has to offer prospective recruits.