Eleven Adjustments #2: Ease Up On The Defensive Rotation October 17, 2012
Have I mentioned how much I dislike having a job? Stupid responsibility. If I didn’t have this dumb job where I “provide for my family” and “pay for my children’s education”, I would’ve probably written 12 posts today. So much going through my head right now, both for basketball and football. I’m not sure anyone understands how many Illini words I have within me. I think it’s limitless. Anyway, here’s point #2, on day #2, just under the wire.
Let’s start with some background on this issue. Here’s what I wrote in my postgame comments after the Western Michigan game:
My biggest takeaway was the number of young players on defense who played in key spots. The game ended almost 12 hours ago, and it’s all I can think about. I want to a blues festival with my wife tonight, and this one band was really good, but even they couldn’t hold my attention. I kept doing a mental inventory of all the young guys who played on defense. Not just played, but played in the middle of key WMU drives.
For the last two years, Vic Koenning played around 15-17 guys per game. Each of his starters got the vast majority of the minutes, a few of the special package guys (Green joining Hawthorne and Wilson, for example) played a ton of minutes, and then a few defensive linemen and linebackers got spot duty here and there. But the starters ruled the day. I’d say 85% of the snaps under Koenning were either all-starters or starters mixed with special package guys.
Today, I’d guess we only had 10-12 plays with the full starting defense. Nearly every series had backups mixed in. Sometimes, those series would include 5 starters and 6 backups. If you can’t tell, I was stunned by this.
Darrius Caldwell played a lot. Fellow redshirt freshman DE Kenny Nelson, too. True freshman linebackers Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina played a ton. Ralph Cooper, too. Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe. Eaton Spence, Jack Ramsey, and V’Angelo Bentley. Tommy Davis.
We’ve seen the same thing over the past six games. I’d say Tim Banks uses his backups twice (three times?) as much as Vic Koenning did. We’ve had a lot of injuries, so many backups had to fill in for certain injured starters, but we still rotate like crazy.
Why? Well, the staff has never come out and said “this is why we rotate so many players”, but from other things they have said, I think the idea is threefold: 1) keep the starters fresh for the fourth quarter, 2) build depth and experience for the future, and 3) don’t wear out your starters so they have nothing left in the tank come November.
It hasn’t worked.
I mean, sure, maybe some of these snaps that Kenny Nelson is getting are helping him for next year, when he’s the main backup at defensive end to Tim Kynard. And V’Angelo Bentley is getting valuable experience for when he’s a starter next season. And sure, maybe this rotation makes us fresher come November.
But it already doesn’t matter. The season is already lost. Normally, I’d say that this would mean lots and lots of backups should play. If the season is lost, we should get ready for next year and sit the seniors, right? But that’s not the direction I want to go. I’d like to see a defensive identity established.
I think most of you know that I’m a Vic Koenning junkie. Which is probably unfair for Tim Banks, but whatever. Here’s our total defense rankings since the Rose Bowl season, starting with this year and working back. See if you can pick out the Vic Koenning years: 52nd, 7th, 38th, 91st, 56th, 55th.
What was the #1 thing that Vic Koenning cared about when setting up his defense? You HAD to be assignment sound. If you wanted to play, it was a requirement. The 11 players on his defense worked as a unit. He really didn’t care when his cornerback came up and made a tackle in the flat. Seriously. All he wanted to know was whether that cornerback fulfilled his assignment in that defensive call for that play. If everyone did their job on every play, it would be very difficult for any team to move the ball 80 yards and score on them.
So he played safeties who would play their assignments – he didn’t care about speed. He got angry at Miami Thomas once for an interception in the Spring Game – Thomas read the quarterback’s eyes and left his receiver to jump a route. He honestly didn’t care the Thomas made the pick – he wasn’t assignment sound, so he wasn’t going to play.
Because of this, Vic’s rotation was very thin. He only had certain players he felt he could trust. As a result, his starters played maybe 85% of every game. It left them exhausted at the end of each season – just look at how we rebounded on defense in each bowl game to see how much the rest helped – but we still had a rock solid defense each of his two seasons here.
Point #2: get back to some of that. I’m not asking for all starters all the time. We’ll lose seven or eight starters off this defense. We do have to have some young guys ready. But I think we need to reduce the minutes for those subs. Maybe by half. It’s a tricky thing, trying to find the balance between exhausting the starters and utilizing a defense too green to stop anyone. In my view, we’ve leaned a little too far in the green direction.
And I want it to be drive specific. If we need a big stop after a turnover, get me all of the starters out there. Just because it’s V’Angelo Bentley’s turn to replace Justin Green and Mike Svetina’s turn to replace Jonathan Brown doesn’t mean we can’t switch it up for a certain game situation. Yes, we’ve done some of that, but not nearly enough.
So that’s the second thing. Stop playing six backups and five starters. Find a rotation of guys you can trust, and give them the vast majority of the minutes. By the Minnesota and Purdue games, I’d like to see an A Team defense that can shut down our opponent and remind us of the defenses of the past two years. Sure, sprinkle in green guys here and there and get them minutes, but we must get back to the defense that everyone expected.
And to do that, we need to lean on the starters.