Vic Koenning took the Illinois practice field by storm this spring. He knew he was inheriting a defense that had faired poorly last fall and lacked fundamental soundness and confidence. He threw his hat, yelled at them and forced them to endure up-downs after practice to emphasize things they need to correct. And yet through it all the players continued to respect him.
"The respect part is the thing you worry about," Koenning frets. "They know I deeply care about them. There isn't many of them I haven't talked to about their academics or gone over what they've got to do better in the classroom.
"I try not to talk to them every day because then they won't listen. But they know I'm gonna tell them where they've made bad decisions and how to find the things to help them live their lives."
Koenning and his staff had much to teach this spring. Not everything is down pat as he described three weeks into spring ball.
"We've just got a lot of things to improve on. You'd like to have spring practice where you're just working on fundamentals and improving. We do have to teach a new system.
"We do have a lot of things I'd like to get to before spring's up, but I don't know that we've got the personnel to get to it. It may be a year down the road before we can do that. We've got most everything, we're just trying to get everybody to understand and polish things up a little bit."
Koenning wears his heart on his sleeve. The Illini defense made considerable progress this spring, but Koenning continued to fret over all the imperfections. It was hard for him to see all the good right after a scrimmage this spring.
"The ebb and flow of a scrimmage is just like the ebb and flow of a game. It's never as good as it seems and never as bad. We've got to continue to keep trying to get the guys to learn how to get off the ground. If they get blocked, get off the block and make the tackles. All those things we've still got to learn.
"We try to do a tackling drill, and there's 10 guys that still don't understand how they can still make a tackle like I was taught in 6th and 7th grade. We're just trying to make up some of this ground on some of the things these guys have to continue to learn."
When he has time to calm down, he gets rebalanced and shows his good heart.
"I told them they're not gonna be perfect. You make a mistake, it's gone, it's over with. There's only been one person on this Earth who's been perfect. We just can't continue to make the same mistakes. We have to learn and grow from it."
Are the mistakes correctable?
"I hope so. There will be a point in time where if we keep making mistakes, then we'll help the equation out and delete the things where we make the most mistakes. Right now, we have more things in than we'd probably have for a game.
"There's a lot of things we'd like to have, like two-minute situations and stuff that we don't have and will have to wait until 2-a-days to get in. But the guys are getting exposed to a lot of stuff. I think for the most part they're improving every day."
Complicating his problems during scrimmages was game planning to slow first string quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. His speed puts great pressure on any defense.
"It's obvious he's a guy you've got to account for. You can't do certain things. If we were in a game situation, we'd probably put a guy on him. That usually comes from the secondary because that's a guy that can run with him."
Koenning's big concern at the moment is the degree of carryover for his defense through the summer. The players must work on their fundamentals, study their playbooks and study film. He doesn't want them starting over once Camp Rantoul arrives.
"The thing you hope is there's some carryover and the guys on our team establish leadership. When the summer workouts get here, they'll take the proverbial horse by the reins and ride it, make sure our guys know where everyone's supposed to be.
"I think what will determine how good we are early in the season this next year is how the guys work together. Do they continue to progress and polish and create the habits we tried to get going here in the spring?"
When asked whether any entering freshman can help this fall, Koenning provided a complex answer.
"I've got a better chance of guessing who's gonna win the NASCAR races than that. But I think a few of them are gonna walk into situations where they're at least gonna be in the three deep.
"I think defensively, almost every one that's coming in, if they're able to get themselves ready and are able to assimilate information, I think they'll all have an opportunity. If they're better, then they're better.
"Obviously, they're gonna make a mistake or two. They haven't gotten a chance to go through these things. They haven't gotten a chance to experience two-minute drills and four-minute drills, goal lines and all the other things these guys are practicing already. But if they're significantly better, and we're not wasting a year to do that, I would assume Coach wants to play the best players."
Speaking with Coach Koenning right after a bad practice, one gets the impression he has little hope for the Illinois defense this year. But just when you think the situation is hopeless, he lets his good heart come through with a counter argument.
"I truly believe we can be one of the most feared defenses, not just in the conference but the country. But it doesn't matter what I believe, it's what they do and believe. I have a sense that there's a belief in them, and that I'm trying to get them where they want to go and where we want to go. So we're all in this thing together."