During spring practices, the Illinois defense was helped by the knowledge outside linebacker coach Ron West gained from previous experience working with Vic Koenning.
"Oh yeah," West acknowledges. "Having worked with Coach Vic 4 or 5 years earlier, I was aware of the system we were gonna run. And we did a lot of the system at Tulsa. So we're running some of the same stuff. That was good."
Coaches Dan Disch and Keith Gilmore remained from the previous staff. Much of the new defense is similar to what was done in the past, but new terminology and some technique variations had to be learned and incorporated.
"In essence they did because they hadn't run the scheme. They still ran things similar to the scheme. All it was was learning the different communication. But they had run some of the same coverages, same fronts, everything."
Disch used to coach three linebacker positions, and Gilmore coached four defensive linemen. But changes in responsibility for the strongside (SAM) linebacker and weakside defensive end (now called Bandit) required a coach for the outside backers to go with Disch's two inside backers plus Gilmore's three defensive linemen.
"We have to be able to split it because they're different guys. The Bandit's a rush/drop guy. The SAM has to play in space on coverage a lot. You're in the box sometimes and play a stand-up linebacker. You can rush from it so the principles of outside backers are very similar. And then the inside backers never really play on the edges as much. We did it that way at Clemson, and it worked out real good."
The SAM linebacker was removed on third down passing situations in favor of a nickel back last year. Now, the SAM must be a hybrid linebacker/defensive back so he can stay in the game and respond favorably both to the run and pass. Nathan Bussey and Ashante Williams were 1-2 at the spot all spring.
"We're progressing at a steady rate," West estimates. "We're learning every day about our scheme, making adjustments. Every day is a process. The good thing we've got is we've seen multiple schemes this spring, so that's helped speed up the process.
"Nate's doing pretty good, and Ashante's doing pretty good too. The biggest thing is just learning the scheme, knowing what they're supposed to do and understanding the adjustments. That is a work in progress."
More depth is needed to compete with Bussey and Williams. Incoming freshman Earnest Thomas is one possible candidate there.
"We've got to have somebody come in and play. Hopefully he can come in and learn it. There's a couple guys that might play there, so I'm not sure yet. But he's the guy that's listed there right now.
"I haven't met him, but they say he's a very electric guy, can run and all that. So he sounds like a good kid. I think he will have a great opportunity because we've got two guys working there and we need three. So he's got a great shot."
Upcoming sophomore Michael Buchanan and redshirt sophomore Nate Palmer played Bandit this spring. Both are inexperienced and need reps, but they have potential. Both players were in on several tackles for loss this spring. At 6'-5", Buchanan has the ranginess needed for a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.
"Michael Buchanan is very athletic, and he's getting better. He's got to learn to play the run better. Play the run better and continue to evolve his fundamentals on rushing the passer."
Palmer is athletic and aggressive, but he entered college with minimal technique training and must continue to make improvements.
"He's coming, he's coming. It's a learning process for him. He hasn't played there in awhile. He isn't as big as Buchanan. He lost some weight in the off season, but he's starting to gain some of that weight back.
"He's making progress. He does a little better in the pass part of it, and he's getting better with the run. The thing he can help us with is the drop part."
"Those two, we don't know which one. We might move one of those guys back inside. We'll just have to see where we are. At least we have an option there as we have two more guys to work with. One of those guys will wind up at inside linebacker."
West recruited Bates out of Louisiana as a late addition to the entering freshman class. He describes his new recruit.
"I think he's an excellent player. Watching him in high school, he played down. So he'll be very comfortable playing down. We'll find out he can run, he's got some explosion. So we'll see how he can fit because he's got to be able to drop.
"If he plays Bandit he'll be dropping and rushing. If he plays inside backer he'll have to learn a little bit more. That'll be interesting to see where he winds up fitting in. What we need, he's got to fit in. I think he has a great chance of figuring in as a freshman."
West has much to teach, and both his positions are filled with inexperienced players. The process takes time.
"They're getting better. They've got to continue to improve on their drops, playing under their pads, base balance and power with their feet, snatching off blocks, rushing the passer, where their eyes should be in coverage.
"What's taking so long is the processing of information, trying to figure it all out. And then processing all the looks because our offense isn't very simple. They do a lot of wide-open attacks, and we see a lot of empty backfields plus two-backs and one-backs. So we're seeing multiple sets. If we continue to improve on our fundamentals, we'll be fine.
"I think it's a learning process. Learning what we want and what we expect. Some of the coverages may be the same, it's just the way we call them. They are techniques they've done here in the past. It's just a learning curve.
"Once they understand that, they will play better and play faster. What happens is, once you process the information, originally you're thinking about it because it's new information. When you're thinking about it and things are happening so fast on the field, sometimes the processing is a little slower and the reacting is a little slower. So the more we play, the more reps we get, the quicker we process the information and react to it better."
Bates is said to be a special teams demon. The Illini can use upgrades on all six special teams. In that regard, West has accepted responsibility for the punt team.
"Yes sir, I've done it before. The kicking game is an important part of the game, so I've been intrigued with the kicking game for a long time. When I was a coordinator many years past, I had those kind of responsibilities.
"This year, Coach has let me be in charge of the punt team. He helps me, and we have other coaches that all have a responsibility. But I enjoy the kicking game because it's a major part of the football game.
"You win the kicking game, don't turn the ball over and then on defense play really smart and don't give anything up, then you pretty much have a chance to win every game. Coach Zook is very knowledgeable of the kicking game and has done it in the NFL. So it's kind of fun coaching it with him."