Defensive Coordinator Koenning Hard At Work

The Fighting Illini defense was porous last year. Injuries, inexperience and loss of confidence all contributed. A new offensive coordinator was hired to make improvements. Vic Koenning is starting his first spring ball with the Illini, and he has much work to do. He has some talent on hand, but he must mold the group into an efficient fighting machine.

Vic Koenning spoke with the media after the first day of spring practice. He has a plan and approach that has succeeded elsewhere. He is now trying to install his system at Illinois. Spring is a fun time for him.

"Spring football is a blast for coaches because you don't have the pressure of the game moving down on you. You're not game planning, you're concentrating on getting each player a little bit better with each practice."

Making the players better is complicated. Koenning is hoping the players will benefit from having a clean slate with new coaches and new system.

"They've all got a fresh beginning. I do see a lot of fundamental things I do believe we can correct. That goes with having kind of a young group. There's a lot of new guys, new faces, guys that haven't played very much.

"Maybe there are some fundamental things that are being taught in a different way. You can say the same thing a lot of different ways. Eventually they will figure out a way that's the right way, that matches what you're trying to get done. I know we will expect them to go hard, to do all the little things."

Koenning wants each player to accept responsibility for everything in his life, on the field and off.

"We've got to instill discipline, I think that is an issue in all the little things. Class...late is a miss. Take care of your study hall. Take care of this, and take care of that. Do all the things off the field and around the field that will create a winning atmosphere and winning attitude."

This is not a new philosophy. Koenning has studied the best coaches.

"That goes back to the '60's when Vince Lombardi was at Green Bay. You take care of those details, and winning kind of takes care of itself. That's something he says throughout his manuscripts. It tends to help.

"The easiest way to make sure you give yourself a chance for success is to just work as hard as you can. And the rest of it's got to be up to faith and God."

After two days in shells, the Illini don full pads Friday. Position battles are hard to resolve until the hitting begins.

"We won't really figure that out until we get into pads and get into scrimmages. Some guys seek contact, there are some that tolerate contact and those that avoid contact. We'll quickly see who the guys avoiding it are and find something else for them to do.

"If you'll tolerate it, then we'll figure something out. Our mission is to find the seekers. We're trying to get them better. That's the whole million dollar thing. If you get them all better, then you've got a chance. I think we've got enough speed to give ourself a chance. If we line up and do things right, we'll be okay."

There has already been some position shifting, and there will likely be more. Koenning's defensive philosophy takes advantage of athletes with versatility. His Bandit position is a defensive end who can also operate as a linebacker at times. His ideal strongside linebacker can also be a nickel back.

The more things his players can do, the better Koenning can disguise what he is doing defensively to keep offenses off balance. The key now is determining what his players can and can't do and adapting accordingly.

"We're trying to find the best positions for our guys. We need to see what suits them. You don't want to put a square peg in a round hole. We're trying to see what our guys can do and adjust our defense around it.

"The good thing about this package is it's got so much flexibility, we can kind of gear the package to the talent of our players. We'll see what we do best and focus on that part of it."

Koenning's motto is simple but all-encompassing.

"We're gonna be a team that's gonna run to the ball. Our slogan right now is 'Run to the ball, tackle in numbers and get takeaways.' If we can concentrate on those three things, then we should be better."

After Tuesday's practice, it was obvious more work is needed.

"We've got a lot of foundation work to do. We dropped at least three interceptions there. There's things we've got to do to get better."

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