Koenning Provides Update On Illini Defense

The Fighting Illini football coaching staff is back in the office after four weeks on the road evaluating recruiting prospects. While recruiting and upcoming camps are a major summer priority, the coaches are also refocusing on preparations for a difficult fall schedule. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning discusses a number of topics.

Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning was interviewed on WDWS radio Saturday morning. Happily ensconsed with his wife and three sons in Monticello, he talked about his schedule since returning from recruiting.

"We all just got off the road. We were in the offices the whole week. Coach Zook has the whole staff sit and watch all the guys we just went out and found or got tapes on or discovered or whatever the word is for next year's recruiting class. We spent a lengthy week of watching film from 8:00am to 5:00pm, categorizing our recruiting class."

Varsity players have been trickling in.

"I know not all of them are back. Some of them are. Some of them started summer school. Class schedules vary. Some of them will be coming back in the next week or two. I know the incoming freshmen are allowed to come in, and they'll be here in about two weeks."

Koenning reminded that the players are basically on their own during the summer and must rely on their leaders to get them organized and working together on a regular basis.

"We can't practice with the players. They can work with our strength staff. Our upperclassmen kind of get together with each other. I think they do a little skels (skeleton drills) and individual type things against each other.

"I think they're going twice a week, maybe three. The players get together on their own. We don't know who's there, who's not there. I think that's pretty customary across the country."

One player who may not be back is Josh Brent. Forced to take classes at Parkland College to regain eligibility, news on that front is not encouraging. Koenning was not making an official announcement on his status, but that may be upcoming.

"I think everybody knows his issues. I know Josh has communicated that he didn't get the type of grades he needed to. I'll be quite honest with you. He might be a great player, but we feel real comfortable with the guys we've got."

As usual, he was forthright about the problems confronting the Illinois defense this year and what is being done to solve them. He defended the potential of the defensive line without Brent when asked his thoughts on his spring replacement Glenn Foster and the twosome of Foster and Corey Liuget.

"I hope (they will make a good pair). And with Akeem (Spence), and we've got a couple guys coming in. I think part of being a good coach is to take the talent that you've got and assemble a package for them that best meets their abilities. You don't try to force a square peg in a round hole.

"Glenn can do some things with his athleticism that not everybody can do. We try to use the guys as best we can. I think the front seven is not where my greatest concerns are. My great concerns right now lie with the secondary."

As secondary coach, Koenning is justifiably worried about a lack of dept at all four positions. There are a couple good ones at cornerback, however, in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

"Terry's got a ton of ability. We've got a long-legged young man, kind of a long strider. You wouldn't want a long strider to do things a shorter, quicker guy to do. So you put them in the right coverages that meet their abilities.

"I think Tavon had a really good spring and was solid with his fundamentals. I don't know who the safeties are gonna end up being right now. There are a lot of concerns I have right now with the continuity and who's gonna be where.

"I think the starting two corners, if we can keep them healthy, I think they have a chance to be successful. Beyond that, there's a lot of concerns."

Miami Thomas endured his second straight spring without contact while rehabilitating surgically repaired knees. He would help at cornerback. Will he be back to full strength by fall?

"He's trying to be. I know he's not cleared yet. He's been working awfully hard. I talked to him about this the other day, and he says he's got to get his strength back up in his quads before they'll release him to do the drills. He's preparing to.

"That would be a good shot in the arm. I'd like to have five safeties and five corners to go into the season that you're preparing with every week. We're gonna be fortunate to have that."

Besides Thomas, middle linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive end Clay Nurse also had limited spring work due to fall surgeries. Koenning was asked their status.

"Martez is a difference-maker. In spring you're allowed to have some practice without tackling, so they let Martez pretty much go those days, where he wasn't doing much more than chest-bumping.

"He really is a tempo-setter for the defense. I want to call him the barometer because he's gonna be the guy that will determine how we are.

"I don't want to speak for Coach (Keith) Gilmore, but Clay might be one of our better leaders on defense. He's a guy that really gave us a solid anchor point at the five-technique position.

"I expect him to come back 100% healthy, and I think that we can put together a pretty good front seven. The biggest concerns are going to be getting into set packages and having enough dbs to do the stuff I like to do."

Koenning's defense is complicated, designed to keep offenses guessing. He was asked again to try to define his overall concept, but it is too complex for simple answers.

"This package I've kind of been wrestling with for some time now. It's got some Monte Kiffen stuff. It's got some Joe Lee Dunn, who blessed me by giving me my first coaching job. It's got some Tim Rose, it's got some stuff from just about everybody.

"We run some 3-4 stuff, there's actually some 4-3 stuff, a lot of 4-2-5. And like what Bud Foster runs at Virginia Tech, with kind of a 4-4 type scheme. So it depends on what you're running that will determine what we're doing.

"We try to give different looks without confusing our guys. We've got it packaged where it kind of fits them. It's a learning process, but we try to give as many looks as we can without confusing our guys."

If that explanation isn't sufficiently explanatory, then there's a chance it will confuse opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Part of the defensive philosophy is to use versatile players who can play more than one role. Koenning was asked the role of the Bandit, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Michael Buchanan was the first stringer in the spring.

"Back in the day, they called it rush ends and drop ends. The old Bo Schembechler defense. We do some of that. He (Buchanan) does what we used to call a rush end, so he's mostly gonna be a rush guy. But we do drop him some.

"With the spread offenses now, they do a numbers deal on you. They get you in what they call a five man box. If you have five defenders in the box, they try to run the ball. They wrap a guard around or wrap a center back and create an iso play with one of the linemen, so you have to have two linebackers in the box.

"So we'll walk him out where most teams have a WILL linebacker. That way we can have two linebackers in the box. It was just a way to kind of cheat if you will because you have a different number of guys to play the run."

The teams Illinois plays this fall use a variety of different offenses. So there is much his troops must prepare to handle on game day. Several teams have spread offenses, including first opponent Missouri.

"A lot of the spread offense is just the old veer option offense. They're just spacing with the line or veer blocking with the line, depending on what you give them.

"You're gonna have to be multifaceted in this conference. Every week's gonna be a different deal. To be frank, we're gonna focus on Missouri and what we need to do to try to stop them.

"We were really playing pretty well last year at Kansas State, and we had a lot riding on that game, and they got us. We didn't play as well as we needed to against them, so we're gonna have to have some different stuff ready for them so they can't go back and study the old game plan.

"We'll prepare for that, and obviously we have Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois after that, followed by an open date. So we'll really focus on the first three opponents."

There is much to do for any defensive coordinator at the major college level. Ideally, there is plenty of experienced depth well prepared to face all opponents on game day. However, that isn't necessarily the case with the Illini this year.

For instance, Koenning discovered to his dismay this spring that many Illini defenders are woefully undertrained on the art of tackling. He is used to coaching and recruiting the South, where high schools are allowed to have spring practices. With Northern schools limited on how much time they have to practice, things like tackling fundamentals take a back seat to other priorities.

"The same is true at the college level as there is precious little time for everything that must be done in practice. But Koenning is a stickler for fundamentals, and he will make sure Illini defenders tackle properly, for health reasons if nothing else.

"When you live in glass houses, you've got to be careful not to throw stones. But I know that when I went recruiting in the spring, I would go to practices whether it was Texas or Florida or Alabama.

"They'd start off the first thirty minutes of these practices showing these young men, whether it's freshmen or eighth graders or high school guys, they're showing them how to put their face on a tackle. How to run their feet. How to be effective tacklers without incurring injuries, and not go running with their head down.

"You'd like them to work a certain way, and it's a scary thing when you have players who have gotten hurt tackling. So it's as much a health thing as anything. Learning to tackle with their eyes, tackle with their face up and then bring their feet. Do it the right way. It's the way I saw a whole lot of high school and junior high coaches do it in the spring.

"We've just got to go back to the fundamentals on that, start from scratch and develop that. It's like a golf swing. You get in a little bit of a rut with your golf swing, and you can't hit it straight. We have to get the habits to do it right and get confident in it.

"It's something you've got to practice a thousand times. I was told at the Police Academy they have them draw their pistol a thousand times. If we have to practice a thousand times to get the habit, we're gonna do it."

As always, Koenning displayed his emotions on his sleeve throughout the discussion. He emotes both positively and negatively, and sometimes his concerns appear to carry him in a negative direction. But he usually provides an uplifting thought to counter any concerns.

"It's an honor to talk about Illini football. Hopefully, we'll have the fans excited. We've got to get the people who are kind of on the fence to get them over there excited. We know it's one of those things we've got to get done by our actions. We'll get them where we need them to be."

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