Koenning's 'D' getting job done
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com
Players say defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's appreciation makes them want to play harder.
CHAMPAIGN -- The testimonials from his players to Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning are widespread and heartfelt.
*''We're just feeding off of him. We're the embodiment of our D-coordinator,'' defensive end/bandit Clay Nurse said. ''Guys just want it more this year. When a defensive coordinator asks you what plays you like, you know he cares.''
*''He connects with us,'' said safety Trulon Henry, impressed that Koenning, a small-town guy from Owasso, Okla., can bridge the gap with a city kid from Washington, D.C. ''He's always asking about my wife and daughter.''
*''You can go tell him, 'I don't feel comfortable with this,' and he's going to adjust it,'' said tackle Corey Liuget, who's also impressed with offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. ''The guy's a heck of a coach. All of our coaches are.''
*''He tells us he appreciates us and loves us as players,'' linebacker Martez Wilson said. ''It makes you want to play harder for him.''
While the adoration Koenning has engendered must make him proud, talking about it makes him a little uncomfortable.
''They have to watch out, too,'' Koenning said. ''In practice Thursday, I jumped one of them pretty hard. And he said, 'So that's the way it is.' I said, 'That's exactly the way it is.'''
Koenning, 50, is crusty but wry. He meanders sometimes and gets right to the point at other times. A straight shooter, he's reminiscent of another Oklahoma football mind, legendary Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, a native of Frederick, Okla.
From the easy-listening drawl to the down-home philosophy, from the air-tight defensive schemes to the love his players show him, Koenning has a lot in common with Ryan.
''My mama told me something a long time ago about raising kids,'' Koenning said. ''Either be consistently nice or consistently ugly, but be consistent. As a staff, we're pretty consistent with them.''
And they're getting some pretty nice results.
After finishing 96th in points allowed (30.2 a game) last season, Illinois is 12th (16.8) in the nation this fall. It was 91st in yards allowed (403.3) last fall; it is 15th (301.4) this year.
''We try to get our guys to play electric,'' Koenning said. ''And Corey and Martez and Tavon [Wilson] are doing a great job of leading. Some others are doing OK, but those three are outstanding.''
Considering what Koenning accomplished in his other stops, the success should come as no surprise.
From 2005 to 2008, his Clemson defense finished among the top 25 in points allowed and total defense. Moving to his alma mater, Kansas State, in 2009, Koenning turned around the Wildcats, who finished 16th in run defense and 48th in scoring defense. A year earlier, they were 112th and 110th.
Koenning won't say it, but it is believed that the late hours and last-minute changes that have made Bill Snyder a K-State legend wreaked havoc with Koenning's family life. Anticipating that lifestyle, Koenning's wife, Tracy, declined to move to Manhattan. She and their three sons, Brady, 14, Camden, 10, and Jackson, 9 -- they also have a grown daughter, Kimberly -- remained at a family home in Orange Beach, Ala.
When Illini coach Ron Zook was looking for a new defensive coordinator last fall, people kept mentioning Koenning's name.
Zook liked what he saw -- and heard.
''What impresses you is his track record and the type of person he is,'' Zook said. ''I talked to a lot of coaches that knew him and worked with him. He's demanding, and he cares about the kids. He cares about trying to help them reach their goals.''
Seeing an opportunity to coach at a Big Ten school for a coach who has a reputation for recruiting success, Koenning also liked what he saw. Beyond football, he now has his family with him, in a home near the Sangamon River west of Champaign that reminds him of his rural youth.
Illinois' defensive players say Koenning schemes are simple, which allows them to play fast.
''Coach Vic comes up with great game plans,'' Martez Wilson said. ''He makes it simple for us, allows us to attack. It's a simpler scheme. We don't have to do a lot of thinking. Everyone's able to roam and play with a lot of intensity.''
Koenning has some advantages over the co-coordinators of last season. He has more mature players. He has Martez Wilson. He isn't being micromanaged by Zook, who has assumed a CEO role. And this team has a whole different air about it. It doesn't have under-the-gun stars or over-the-top expectations.
But that's a different story. This story is about the revival of a defense. While Koenning's schemes might be simpler, his motivational gift has his players working hard to know their assignments.
''It's not what the coaches know,'' Zook said. ''It's what the players can perform. And the coaches are doing a great job of knowing that.''
That's one reason Koenning asks his players what they like and don't like.
Koenning also knows there are four regular-season games to go, four more battles in which his job is to make something difficult feel simple to his players and look simple to outsiders.
''The old saying is, '[Respect all.] Fear none,' but we still need to have a little bit of fear,'' Koenning said. ''We just have to keep our nose to the grindstone. We have to get our second-team guys up to speed. Because when we put them in games, it has been the proverbial crap through a goose.''
The second team up to speed- Considering what Koenning has done with Illinois' first team, don't rule out anything.KOENNING'S CREWIllinois ranks third in total defense (ranked by yards allowed) in the Big Ten.
Plays Yards YPG
Ohio State 516 2,108 234.2
Iowa 506 2,338 292.2
Illinois 506 2,411 301.4
Wisconsin 482 2,537 317.1
Mich. State 621 3,012 334.6
Penn State 512 2,745 343.1
Purdue 563 2,946 368.2
Northwestern 540 2,971 371.3
Indiana 487 3,073 384.1
Minnesota 539 3,758 417.5
Michigan 580 3,522 440.2