Illini defensive coordinator ready to face former squad in Evanston

By Jason Grodsky

Illinois defensive coordinator Vince Okruch will be in a familiar place when Illinois steps onto Ryan Field at Northwestern tomorrow for its final game of the season.

Okruch spent six years roaming the Northwestern sidelines as a Wildcats’ defensive coach under then-head coach Gary Barnett during the 1990s.

In that time he assisted in helping the Wildcats win two Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996.

“I had a nice experience there but right now it’s just for us to win another football game and that’s all I’m concerned about,” Okruch said.

Okruch was the Northwestern’s defensive line coach from 1992-1996, and was part of the Wildcats coaching staff that coached Northwestern to a 10-1 overall record and 8-0 record in Big Ten play in 1995, earning the Wildcats their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1949.

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Following another Big Ten title during the 1996 season in which Northwestern finished 9-3 (7-1 Big Ten) and shared the Big Ten Championship with Ohio State and earned an invitation to the Citrus Bowl, Okruch took over as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator.

“Being there was special because they had struggled for a long time and we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to represent the Big Ten conference at the Rose Bowl one year and the Citrus Bowl the next,” Okruch said.

Okruch followed Walker to the University of Colorado and continued to be his defensive coordinator from 1999-2003. At Colorado he coached the Buffaloes defense to 18 games of holding opponents to less than 100 yards rushing and 12 games of holding opponents to less than 300 yards total offense.

In 2001 he helped lead the Buffaloes to a Big 12 Championship with a 10-3 record and a trip to the BCS Fiesta Bowl.

In that season, his defense held teams to less than 300 yards total offense four times, and once under 200 total yards.

After spending a year at Western Illinois University as the Leathernecks defensive coordinator in 2004 and a year as the linebacker coach at the University of Lousiana-Monroe in 2005, Okruch was hired by Illinois to replace Mike Cassity.

Since his arrival on the Illinois campus he has made it into the strength of the Illinois football program this season.

“Coach Okruch has helped us tremendously,” junior safety Kevin Mitchell said. “He’s given us a little pep in our step with his energy level and his knowledge.

If you compare us to last year I think we were around 115th out of 117 in the nation, but now were like 26th so that right there speaks for itself,” he added.

Coming off a season in which the Illinois defense allowed 469.3 yards per game and gave up 39.5 points per game, second and last in the Big Ten respectively, and gave up 234 yards rushing per game, fifth worst in the nation.

Okruch has come in and completely turned the Orange and Blue’s defense around.

This season Illinois is giving up just 305.2 yards and 26.7 points per contest and boasts the fifth best rush defense in the Big Ten.

Overall, Illinois is fifth in the Big Ten in total defense this season and has cut its point differential in Big Ten games down from 34.2 points to 7.7 points.

One Illinois player who has benefited greatly from Okruch’s arrival has been junior linebacker J Leman.

Since making the switch to middle linebacker, Leman is averaging a Big Ten-best 11.7 tackles per game and his 16.5 tackles for loss rank second in the Big Ten.

“He has coached a lot of great players and linebackers in the Big Ten and the Big 12 and is very knowledgeable,” Leman said.

“He’s not my position coach but he will still come in and give me little hints and things just to read the offense. He’s just got so much wisdom behind him that it’s a big help,” he added.