Tate: Defense holds key to success
When your team competes against itself, there's going to be a winner and a loser, optimism and disappointment.
As so, with little more than a week before opening against Arkansas State, Paul Petrino has put on display some flashy newcomers — "two really good classes in a row on offense," he says — in support of a veteran offensive unit that has Vic Koenning's defensive unit struggling to keep pace.
And since neither of these Illini coordinators perused the chapter on how to disguise feelings from the hungry media, we're getting the message open and honest. It is very much as we suspected.
"Nathan (Scheelhaase) has taken the leadership role, and the offense has been great all week," bubbled Petrino. "We're way ahead of where we were last year, and we're reaching for the rainbow to be great."
Facing a far tougher assignment is Koenning, who acknowledged Wednesday:
"What's disappointing is that the guys we are developing for defensive depth haven't come along the way we want them to. But we've got to keep pressing them or we won't reach our goal, which is to use more players. I hope I don't sound discouraged. I'm just trying to look at the big picture."
Aware that attentive scribes might see him as negative, Koenning quickly countered:
"I'm not being glum. I just know we're not where we need to be. As coaches, we don't lack confidence in our players. We're just trying to find 22 players and five or six more. When you're as competitive as we are, you're upset when the goals aren't reached. I'm just saying we don't have 25 or 30 guys ready to play defense like we wanted."
Expectations high now
The only difference between this season and 2010 is that expectations weren't high for either offense or defense a year ago. No one could have imagined that Petrino's new unit would average 42 points over the last seven games. Nor would anyone have guessed that Koenning's revamped "D" would limit the first eight foes to 16-plus.
But more always is expected. And so far, the defense has looked more like the unit that started to rupture in the 67-65 three-OT loss at Michigan.
"Right now we have an offensive line that is very experienced," Koenning pointed out, "guys who have been through the wars, and not all the youth we have on defense. Jason Ford is running like we thought he could, the quarterback is on fire — in fact, three good quarterbacks — and with all those receivers, our offense is really, really good right now.
"Defensively, we have returning guys who haven't stepped up in leadership roles. Ian Thomas has been hurt (shoulder). Akeem Spence has been hurt (ankle). Whitney Mercilus hasn't done it yet, and it comes down to the coaches having to try to lead. That's been a hard thing. You're coaching and you're leading and you're pressing them ... it becomes a snowball."
You can feel Koenning's frustration as he pours out his feelings. He heard coach Ron Zook talk about the need for "better tackling and more energy on defense." He understands his unit holds the key to a successful season, and that he can't be on the field giving instruction a week from Saturday.
The last major scrimmage Tuesday "was a day when we let them play without us hollering and being the hammer," he said. And then the unit had breakdowns that, in his words, "started up front but wound through the linebackers and secondary."
To be sure, it was more the reserves than the starters, but he kept emphasizing: "We need some of those twos and threes to play. We have to get these guys ready, and in some cases they weren't giving in to what we need as far as tackling and doing things right."
Koenning then cited examples, like the previous Wednesday, when the defense "laid it on the line and showed what they could do."
Fully wound up, Koenning added:
"In terms of our practice approach, the demands here and human nature call on us to be perfect each day. And maybe I've lost sight of the long-range goals for the season, as I've done in the past. We're trying to get back to that a little bit."
Here's my wrapup. Illini defensive recruiting has not kept pace with the offensive additions, and Zook has done some heady personnel shuffling to fill holes left by the NFL-bound trio of Martez Wilson (Thomas), Corey Liuget (Craig Wilson from offense) and Nate Bussey (Trulon Henry from safety). Scheelhaase has burned them in practice, and they'll face stronger arms during the season.
Big Ten defensive theory long has emphasized stopping the run first. But the evolution of modern football also indicates that when the defense can't stop the pass, it likely will be victimized by both. The problem is thereby identified. The answer awaits.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.