When Ron Zook was ultimately canned before the end of the lackluster 2011 season, one of the biggest questions regarding the inevitable coaching staff shakeup was would the school be able to retain defensive coordinator/alchemist Vic Koenning after bringing in the new head coach. Tim Beckman was hired, Koenning was offered a job, and Vic ultimately packed his bags and left for the same job with the North Carolina Tarheels.
A great contingent of fans were disheartened, myself included.
Koenning came to Illinois after four seasons of running a top 25 defense at Clemson and one year of turning a moribund unit (118th in total defense) into a more-than-respectable (38th) one at his alma mater Kansas State. He was hired in a last ditch effort to save Ron Zook's job and make something out of a unit that allowed 403.3 yards per game the previous season. That was good for last in the conference, 91st in the nation, and on the level of notable programs like Hawaii, SMU, and Louisiana-Lafayette. They averaged 1.3 turnovers per game and only recorded 19 sacks.
In his first season, things improved rapidly. Turnovers? 2.1 per game. Sacks? 23. And most importantly, yards allowed per game? The team jumped all the way up to 38th in the nation, only giving up 351.3 yards per game. That figure was 5th in the conference. The team improved all around and went on to beat Baylor in a bowl game. 2011 may have been his masterpiece. Even though the team would ultimately collapse and get Zook run out of town, the numbers from that defense were still impressive.
Whitney Mercilus almost matched the 2009 team sack total on his own!
Turnovers fell back to 1.7 per game, but the team only allowed 286.2 yards per game. That was second in the conference only to Michigan State and seventh in the nation. Koenning had managed to do more than live up to his reputation.
And then he was gone.
The 2012 team fell back to the middle of the pack. 21 sacks. 1.5 turnovers per game. 387.6 yards allowed per game, good for 55th in the nation. These aren't bad numbers, especially for a 2-10 team, but after the previous season's outright dominance, they were disappointing.
But how did Vic's new squad at North Carolina do? 29 sacks. 2.1 turnovers per game. And 389.6 yards allowed per game, 57th in the nation.
This season? Illinois is likely to post their worst defensive season over the past fewyears, already averaging 432 yards allowed per game before conference play. UNC? 459.8 yards per game, with three losses and 402 yards allowed to Middle Tennessee State in their lone victory.
I'm not saying that losing Koenning didn't hurt the defense. He was a great coordinator. But how much of the defense falling off can really be attributed to that as opposed to the other glaring difference? When Vic signed on, he inherited Mercilus, Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey, Corey Liuget, Tavon Wilson, Jonathan Brown, Terry Hawthorne, and Michael Buchanan. Tim Banks was only given Brown, Buchanan, and Hawthorne. His current defense is filled with young an inexperienced players undergoing baptism by fire. And they're still outperforming the Tarheels.
Do I think the Illini are ultimately better off for not having Koenning running the defense? No. But I don't think they're necessarily that much worse off for him not being there either.