CHAMPAIGN | Illinois has spent a good deal of time trying to find stability and success with its defensive coordinator position and perhaps only now -- when pushed into a corner to locate a solution -- have they got it right.
In 2006, the defensive coordinator was Vince Okruch, and that must not have been right when Okruch and head coach Ron Zook parted ways not long before the start of the 2007 season. That unexpected separation put Zook in a tough spot and he tried to solve the leadership problem on defense by promoting two assistant coaches already on staff to the fairly unusual position of co-defensive coordinator.
When Illinois had its surprising run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, it seemed as though Zook may have pushed a magic button and co-coordinators Curt Mallory and Dan Disch shared some of the praise.
But when the team slipped backward in 2008 and 2009, the co-coordinator idea seemed to be not such a great idea.
To Zook's credit, he was looking for an upgrade before the 2009 season when he made a bold play for Penn State's defensive line coach, Larry Johnson. That would have given the Illini a strong coach and a powerful East Coast recruiter, but in the end Johnson elected to stay put.
So Disch and Mallory continued to share the defensive leadership role last season.
But when last season produced a 3-9 record, Director of Athletics Ron Guenther made the decision that Zook needed to boost the strength of the coaches around him. That resulted in a number of changes, including Mallory's move to the University of Akron, where he is now the defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach on a staff that, ironically, includes Okruch, who looks after special teams and safeties.
Disch remains at Illinois where he's now coaching the linebackers.
That shakeup paved the way for the arrival of Vic Koenning, who had done an excellent job with the Clemson defense and who was persuaded to leave his alma mater, Kansas State.
It's way too early to pin a medal on Koenning, but the feeling after eight months on the job and two games into the 2010 season is that this Illini defense is better organized and is getting more endorsement from the players.
Is one strong coordinator better than a shared role?
Although tackling has improved on the defense, players are careful about tackling that question, especially with Disch still in place. No one is looking to hurt anyone's feelings.
But it's clear the players respect and respond to Koenning and they praise his leadership style in a way we never heard them communicate regarding the last regime.
Linebacker Nate Bussey said players learned early-on that while Koenning would prove to be a good person with a sense of humor, he was inflexible when it came to playing defense his way.
"I knew he was demanding the first time we had a defensive meeting with him as our coordinator," Bussey said. "He came in and the first thing he said was, ‘You are going to do what I ask you to do and if you don't like it, there's the door.' So I knew from there I was going to like him as a defensive coordinator. He is very demanding about how he wants his defense to play.
"When a play is called, the main focus for coach Vic is execution," Bussey said. "Whatever play he calls, he wants it executed to perfection. If it's not done to perfection, we do it again. If we're not getting it, he'll go back and watch the film and simplify it for us."
But is it easier to report to one defensive coordinator?
"I wouldn't say there was confusion, but when two people of the same authority have different opinions on something, it can cause confusion or mental clutter," Bussey said.
Koenning is not a screamer in meetings. He's animated on the practice field, and he when he gets particularly agitated, he's been known to throw his cap.
Defensive back Tavon Wilson knows all about the cap throwing.
"We learned about it in the spring, just how he approaches meetings," Wilson said. "He wants everyone to sit up and pay attention. He doesn't let you slouch down. If you do, he tells you to sit up or you're going to get that hat."
Koenning seems to have spelled out clear expectations. Execute as taught. Play fast. Have fun.
Fun, of course, is always easier in the pursuit of victory.
"We definitely respond well to Coach Vic," Wilson said. "Coming out of the Missouri game, he felt the first five minutes of the third quarter would determine the game and he felt like we didn't play fast enough.
"He challenges us every week and even after the SIU game, he has challenged us to play faster.
"Coach Vic is more of an enforcer," Wilson said, comparing him to past coordinators. "If the (team) leaders are not taking charge, he will. He won't sit around and let practice go mediocre. He will make sure everyone is running to the football on every play. He'll run to the football with you if he has to. That's probably the biggest difference from coaches in the past.
"Past coaches wouldn't let it slide, but they weren't enforcing it as much as coach Vic would. He doesn't take a play off just like he expects you not to take a play off."
Maybe Koenning simply has a stronger personality that has resonated with this team.
Maybe one coordinator is better than two.
Maybe this defense will wear down over the course of the season and the improvements won't seem so great.
For now, though, whatever Koenning is selling, these players are buying. And after trying different approaches at defensive coordinator in the past, Illinois seems to have found something that works.