CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Vic Koenning talks defense in his own brand of coaching maxims, borrowing liberally from Vince Lomardi and Al Davis, and delivering it all in a dry Oklahoma twang.
He wants his players to play like their hair’s on fire. He tells them that fatigue makes cowards of us all. But if they’ll do right, right will follow.
And if that fails, the Illinois defensive coordinator gets his point across with his hat.
Specifically, he throws it.
“He wants everyone to sit up and pay attention,” defensive back Tavon Wilson says of team meetings. “He doesn’t let you slouch down. He’ll tell you to sit up or you’re gonna’ get that hat.”
It’s early and the Illini (1-1) haven’t beaten a Football Bowl Subdivision team yet, haven’t yet faced Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State in consecutive weeks – that’s still to come, after Saturday’s game with Northern Illinois and an off week.
But the Illini defense is giving up 13 points a game so far, kept Missouri’s offense mostly in check in the opening 23-13 loss and, in spite of a rash of injuries, believes it’s better than it was a year ago.
The players and Koenning say that believing is important. And the players largely credit the 50-year-old Koenning for that.
“He’s not going to sit around and let practice go mediocre,” Wilson said. “He’s going to make sure you run to the ball, and run with you if he has to.”
Koenning came to Illinois last winter from Kansas State, one of a half-dozen new faces on head coach Ron Zook’s staff, all hired after a 3-9 season led athletic director Ron Guenther to clean house.
The Owasso, Okla., native left his alma mater for a shot at fixing what has been a problem spot for the Illini.
Illinois’ defense gave up 30.2 points a game in 2009 and just over 400 yards of offense. The year before, the Illini gave up an average of 26.6 points and 350 yards while finishing 5-7.
In one season at Kansas State, Koenning’s defense improved from 117th in the country to 40th. Before that, his defenses at Clemson were ranked in the top 20.
The Illini defense has lost two starters to injury – safety Suppo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne – and another, Michael Buchanan, to a drunken-driving charge. Hawthorne is expected back in a few weeks, but Sanni is out for the year and it isn’t clear whether Buchanan will play again this year.
“It happened to me at Wyoming,” where Koenning was head coach from 2000-2002, he said.
“We just had so many guys got hurt,” he added. “It was like 18 guys the first year and 16 the second year, and the third year wasn’t quite as bad.”
Those injuries were a big reason, he says, why his Wyoming teams won five games in three seasons.
That’s why he finds himself working on the basics at Illinois in mid-September, doing things now that he says he thought he took care of in spring football. And why he’s teaching running backs, like new starting corner Justin Green, how to be defensive backs.
Koenning didn’t watch much film of last year’s team. He wanted to give a defense that had given up a lot of yards and points – including 49 and 52 in back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State to close the season – a fresh start.
“I’m trying my level best to be a positive influence, in a positive mode,” he said before the season opener. “These guys need positives and they need confidence.”
Defensive players are careful not to criticize Koenning’s predecessors, co-coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory. Disch is still on the staff, coaching the linebackers.
But the players make clear they believe that, with Koenning – Coach Vic, as they call him – they’re a different defense.
“I trust coach Vic,” Wilson said. “He’s more of an enforcer.”
Updated September 17, 2010
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