Illinois defense showing early promise

Time will tell whether the Great Experiment of Champaign works or not, but one big piece of the puzzle seems to fit.

First-year coordinator Vic Koenning is having a positive effect on the Illinois defense.

Yes, it's still very early, but the Fighting Illini defense is showing promising signs after two games. Illinois limited Missouri to 23 points in the opener -- the Tigers' had averaged 43 points in its previous three games with the Illini -- and kept Southern Illinois out of the end zone last Saturday in Champaign. Despite losing three projected starters in recent weeks -- defensive backs Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne to injury, defensive end/linebacker Michael Buchanan to suspension -- the Illini are receiving production from a variety of sources.

Again, there's long way to go, but so far, so good.

"We're playing so much harder, we're tackling better, we're chasing the football better and we're not giving up the big plays," coach Ron Zook said. "That was the biggest problem we were having last year, the big plays. They're playing as a group, they're playing as a unit, they're flying around.

"It's hard to find a play where there's not at least eight guys around the football. It's team defense."

Zook's last phrase is the important one. Illinois never has lacked individual talent during Zook's tenure on both sides of the ball.

The two-deep on defense features heralded recruits like Martez Wilson, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus. But since the Rose Bowl run in 2007, Illinois hadn't played well as a defensive unit, slipping to 67th in points allowed in 2008 and 96th last fall.

Although much of the criticism in 2009 was directed toward Mike Schultz and an offense that took eight weeks to get on track despite a fourth-year starter at quarterback (Juice Williams) and an All-America candidate at receiver (Arrelious Benn), the defense didn't hold up, either. Illinois allowed 102 points in its final two games, losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State.

As part of a major staff overhaul in December, Zook demoted co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory and brought in Koenning (Mallory left for Akron, while Disch remains on staff as linebackers coach). Illinois beat out Georgia for Koenning's services, and the move seems to be paying off.

Here's what cornerback Tavon Wilson told the (Decatur) Herald & Review this week.

"Coach Vic is more of an enforcer. 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."

The Illini are receiving strong performances so far from safety Travon Bellamy (19 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), linebacker Ian Thomas (17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) and Martez Wilson (14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble.

Five players already have recorded multiple tackles for loss in the first two contests.

"Everyone's involved," Zook said. "It's not just one player that's playing hard. They're all playing hard."