CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning doesn’t know exactly why the Illini crumbled last season.
Koenning was at Kansas State and wasn’t paying attention to Illinois’ 3-9 season. All he can attest to is what he’s been told, and what he now observes.
“I think there’s a lot of guys who wanted to do well, but maybe didn’t have the direction,” Koenning said. “As hard as coach [Ron] Zook has tried to set a tempo and set an atmosphere of toughness and playing hard, I think there were too many scattering things. He couldn’t do it all himself. I think he wore himself out. Personally, I could see him ragged trying to do that. We as a staff, that’s our responsibility.”
It is where Koenning and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino are expected to step in.
Following last year’s disappointing season, Zook cleaned out nearly his entire staff, including his offensive and defensive coordinators, and brought in Koenning from Kansas State and Petrino from Arkansas. There were obvious reasons behind Zook’s selections. Both have been coaching for nearly 20 years, and both have had success everywhere they’ve gone.
Now, the two are expected to produce the same and do it quickly. The assumption is Zook and his staff have probably one season to reverse the Illini’s recent struggles or they could all be out of jobs.
Although some may see taking such a position as a risk, Koenning viewed it as an attraction.
“You see it as a challenge as well as an opportunity,” Koenning said. “Every day is an opportunity to challenge yourself and get better. I like to read history. I saw Michael Jordan say something about this the other day. Back in his day, he would not have called up Larry [Bird] or Magic [Johnson] to play on the same team. He would have just said, ‘I’m going to whup their butt.’ You take challenges where you can find them.”
Koenning’s challenge is to improve a defense that ranked 91st in the nation last season. The Illini ranked 76th against the run and 100th against the pass.
Koenning is coming off a miracle-type transformation at Kansas State. In 2008, the Wildcats were 117th in total defense, 112th in rushing defense and 110th in scoring defense. After Koenning’s arrival, Kansas State dropped to 40th in total defense, 16th in rushing defense and 48th in scoring defense.
So far, Zook likes where Koenning is taking the defense.
“The defense has shown much improvement, much more excitement, much more confidence,” Zook said. “Guys are stepping up and trying to make plays. It’s an area of our game that will be much improved.”
Offensively, Petrino has had similar obstacles. Illinois’ offense ranked 47th offensively -- 17th running and 87th passing -- last year. The offense wasn’t dreadful, but it was expected to achieve much more, as it possessed an experienced quarterback in Juice Williams, one of the nation’s top receivers in Arrelious Benn, eventual NFL draft picks in guard Jon Asamoah and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and an emerging running back in Mikel LeShoure.
Now, Petrino is expected to improve on that with everyone except LeShoure gone, and with a redshirt freshman quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, running his offense.
Petrino isn’t worried, though. Wherever he’s been an offensive coordinator, his offenses have flourished. At Louisville, his teams averaged 41.1 points per game. At Arkansas last season, the Razorbacks were eighth in the nation at 37 points per game and set a school record for passing yards with 3,640, which broke Petrino’s offensive record from the season before.
Petrino doesn’t expect this season to be any different, even if Scheelhaase has never taken a snap in his collegiate career. He certainly isn’t going to take it any easier on Scheelhaase.
“We’ve always believed in putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, coaching them hard,” Petrino said. “I think he takes that well and does a good job with that. I played as a true freshman. I had people play as a freshman all over the country. Just because he’s a quarterback doesn’t make it a bigger deal. You just go out there and compete your butt off and play to the best of your ability.”
Like Scheelhaase, Illinois’ upcoming season is full of unknowns. Illinois could very well experience a similar season to a year ago; or, if Koenning and Petrino can duplicate their previous successes, the Illini could be the talk of the Big Ten.
Whatever it is to be, Koenning can’t wait.
“I told my wife this the other day: It’s been a long time since I remember being as excited about a season’s beginning as this one,” Koenning said. “I think it has a lot of intrigue. There’s a lot of things that can happen, might happen, should happen, whatever.”
Zook is optimistic.
“I think the offseason with all the changes that we’ve had it probably has been as smooth as you can expect,” Zook said. “I think the transition with the coaches has been unbelievable. The transition with the coaches and players has been unbelievable. The implantation of the new systems has been a lot of fun. It’s been exciting for the new players. I think it’s been a very, very positive six, seven months, whatever it’s been. I’m really excited to go see where it goes from here.”
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.