After a recent practice, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning asked the team's linebackers to identify the breed of dog that best represents their position group.
The players didn't hesitate. Four immediately shouted out, "Pitbull!"
It's an answer that warms a coach's heart, but saying the right thing and doing the right thing are different things. Koenning let the players know what he has been seeing this spring.
"Well," he told the linebackers, "we're little cocker spaniels right now."
Illinois is trying to reload on defense after losing a likely first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Corey Liuget and a likely second-round pick in linebacker Martez Wilson. Although Liuget leaves a major void in the middle of the line, the linebackers lose the most overall production as Wilson and Nate Bussey combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions in 2010.
Koenning, who now oversees the linebackers after coaching defensive backs in his first season with Illinois, says the 'backers have the longest way to go "by a long shot." To be fair, the Illini are mostly young and unproven at linebacker and are turning to players like sophomores Jonathan Brown and Brandon Denmark and redshirt freshman Houston Bates. Brown stood out as a true freshman in 2010, recording 31 tackles, but he no longer has Wilson or Bussey on the field to help.
Part of Koenning's challenge is to get the linebackers on the same page from a fundamentals and techniques standpoint.
"That's a major, major, major focus for me right now, for them to all have the same stances, the same basic footwork and techniques," Koenning said.
He's also trying to teach toughness.
"We've got to get back to pursuit drills and stuff we haven't made time to do," Koenning said. "Like Mickey told Rocky, 'The worst thing that can happen to a fighter is to get civilized. You've got to get back to old school.' In my opinion, we've got to get back to a little bit of old school. That's what we’ve got the rest of spring practice to do.'"
Koenning's top priority is to identify leadership. Although Illinois' most experienced defensive unit is the secondary, he notes that few defenses can survive without a leader in the front seven. Wilson answered the call to lead last spring and later was joined by Liuget, who became Illinois' bell cow with his dominating play on the interior line.
Koenning has spotted some potential leaders up front. Rush end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence both have playing experience and show signs of wanting to take the reins.
"Mike's matured a lot, and Mike may be our leader," Koenning said. "He may be the guy."
The easiest solution to the leadership issue, though, would come from the linebacker group. Rising senior Ian Thomas seems like an obvious choice. He has started the past two seasons, recording 162 tackles.
But Thomas is adjusting to the middle linebacker spot and still must make strides in the final two weeks of spring ball.
"He's got a lot on his plate," Koenning said. "He wants to [lead] badly and he's a good person and he's conscientious. It's all weighing on him a little bit. He just needs to relax and play. He's sometimes trying too hard. He'll get it. I'm extremely, extremely hard on him."
Thomas' top priority is improving his footwork to remain in the right position to make plays. He's not alone in that respect.
"It’s like one of those country dances," Koenning said. "You take one step forward and two steps back or two steps forward and one step back, however that goes. I haven’t been able to crack the code with some of these guys to get them to absorb it. We’ve got a lot of questions to answer in the linebacker corps."
The good news: Illinois still has plenty of time to find the answers.