Vic Koenning was distraught after the Rantoul scrimmage last Saturday. The Illinois defense caught the offense behind the line on a number of occasions, but it also gave up some big pass plays that must be corrected. Koenning works to perfect every aspect of the defense, so he takes all mistakes hard.
After reviewing film of the scrimmage, Koenning understands what happened on those long pass plays. On one, sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne gambled and lost.
"He was sniffing where he wasn't supposed to be sniffing. He had two interceptions in the spring doing the same thing and got away with it. There's a good lesson for him to learn."
Koenning wants opposing offenses to earn every yard they gain. Any big gainer is sure to frustrate him.
"Just giving up big plays. Letting guys run by us. Like the one pass to the freshman early on, we had him completely circled. And Shoop (Supo Sanni) falls down. We can't fall down. And then Terry's better than that.
"The other long plays were with down-the-line guys that hadn't gotten much reps. In a scrimmage, you want to give everyone reps. So you're not gonna slit your wrists over that. We hope to get (those mistakes) corrected or those guys aren't out there against Missouri."
Koenning feels it is necessary for players to understand their mistakes to make it easier to correct them.
"We had a lot of good things, but we had a lot of negative plays. We've just got to continue to learn our techniques. We're trying to show our guys that just lining up on the inside of a guy or on the outside of a guy makes a huge difference. It makes a difference in how their blocking schemes are. How and why makes a difference. We need to perfect all that stuff."
Much of coaching is teaching and encouraging. Koenning insists on quality play, but he knows the value of instilling confidence in his players.
"It was just showing them why bad things happen. If we beat our team down and tell them they ain't worth a crap, then they're not gonna be worth a crap.
"You can show them where they can improve, what they've got to do to be great. Make them believe that they're capable of being great and keep building them up 'til they are great or good. That's our best chance.
"We're holding them accountable, trust me. That's why my voice is hoarse and my head's hurting. But we've got to continue to build them up. We've got to continue to grow them up. Everybody who's ever raised kids understands, one day's different from the next day. You just try to be consistent."
The players are working hard on their play books and in their group meetings. They are attentive and ask good questions.
"Yeah, they're doing all that. We're trying to get them to understand why we're doing things so it isn't memorization."
They must battle through the fatique of 24-hour a day football at Camp Rantoul.
"They're tired. It's a challenge to get them to continue to focus. We're putting a lot on our leaders to do that, and I think they're doing a good job.
"We have a lot of energy out here in practice. I know the head coach sets the pace for everybody. He has a lot of energy, and it seems like he said the right thing to them at every turn. I think the players appreciate that and are going from that."
When Koenning was asked about the positives coming from camp, he spoke more about the intangibles than anything specific.
"I think there are some times, (Monday) was an example in the practice. We had a couple of bad plays and weren't playing very good. And then we put some 2nd and 3rd string guys in and there was a drop. Our guys have got to pick it up and play better. We've got to get them better.
"So we were kind of reeling. But then we got to 2-minute and 4-minute, and we did great. We stopped them. So I think that the best thing so far is they've got a little bit of resiliency. That comes from leadership.
"We've got to continue to get those guys to believe. We've got to continue to build on that resiliency. We've got to play like All-Americans. We've got to get all of them to play at their highest level. If you don't believe you can, you have no chance."
One player who needs to play like an All-American is middle linebacker Martez Wilson. He has been somewhat an enigma throughout his career. Injuries and inconsistency have kept him from realizing the promise his measurables suggest. How is he coming along?
"Some days better than others. You like to have perfect consistency. I don't know of anyone who's bringing their A game every day. I don't know if (Brian) Urlacher does that.
"I think he's learning and growing. He's learning a new system. We're trying to teach him ways of doing things. (Dan) Disch has done a really good job with those guys and is working hard on their fundamentals. I think they'll do nothing but improve.
"He probably ought to be the most motivated man out there because he's got a whole lot to gain. I think a lot of our guys, if they just realize what they've got to gain by buying into it and listening to us, I don't think there would ever be any question about their drive. But some of them don't know yet that they don't know. We're just gonna continue to try to coach them."
Koenning's defense is complex, but he's spending a portion of his coaching time teaching fundamentals of tackling, shedding blocks and basic pass defense. He has much to add yet in preparation for the Missouri game coming up in a couple weeks.
"I'm kind of ready to start working on Missouri. The secondary's got a lot of room to go. We're kind of beat up now, and they're trying to practice. We're still giving up some plays we shouldn't give up. We've just got to continue to get better. That's what's frustrating me the most.
"But we've got a lot of guys that we need to play during the length of the year that we've got to keep pounding to get them better. It may not be the Tavon Wilsons and Martezes and Clay Nurses and Terry Hawthornes. It's got to be a lot of those other guys. That's what we've really got to try to get ready for."