Illini Follow Good Practices With Time Off

With a bye week, Fighting Illini football players have had time to relax their minds and heal their bodies in preparation for the beginning of the Big 10 season a week hence. And Illini coaches have used the opportunity to hit the recruiting road. Early week practices were useful as well.

Illinois coach Ron Zook held no formal press conference this week, but he did share his thoughts on the week off after Wednesday's practice in Memorial Stadium.

"We got a lot of good work done. Our purpose this week was to get better. We worked on some things to get us better. And we looked at some things Ohio State does."

After practices Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the players took three days off. Zook feels this down time is essential for his troops.

"I think it's good to give them a little break and give them a chance to freshen up mentally and physically. Get healed up as some guys have bumps and bruises. We'll come back and hit it Sunday, and then it's game week."

Unfortunately, Zook and his staff have no chance to take a break. Most of them traveled to distant precincts to catch up with their recruiting efforts. A coach's work is never complete.

"There's really not a day off. You're recruiting, and you're staying involved with what's going on. We'll probably be involved in some game planning this weekend. Sometimes when you get away from it, you'll think and maybe see some things differently. There's not any down time."

There have been no new injuries this week, a reprieve from the problems earlier.

"No, fortunately, we're good there. We're getting better."

Does that mean potential starters like Terry Hawthorne, Zach Becker and Eddie McGee will be healthy enough to play against Ohio State?

"It'll be pretty much day-to-day. The guys are doing the things we're asking them to do. Those guys will be around here this weekend for treatment. They're all going in the right direction."

They could also use the services of Michael Buchanan, the starting Bandit who ran afoul of the law after the Missouri game and is practicing while awaiting a decision on the possible end of his suspension. No decision has been made as yet.

"It's the legal process, it's Coach (Ron) Guenther, it's the university. Like I just told (the team), you give them three days and you want them to be smart. Get away from it, but on the same token act the way you're supposed to act."

Senior defensive end Clay Nurse was switched to Bandit to replace Buchanan. Is he adjusting to the new role?

"There's so much similarity there with the Bandit and the end. It's not a completely big teaching thing. It's dropping off in coverages that's the biggest difference. I think he did well. Anytime you've got a guy that can play more than one position, it gives you depth."

There was a hidden benefit as well. Whitney Mercilus got the chance to start in Nurse's former spot and has proved worthy of the task. His development adds necessary depth to a thin unit.

"I think it also helped Whitney," Zook agreed. "We know Whitney can play well for us and win for us. So it gives you that much more."

Nonconference statistics show the Illini fourth in rush defense and fifth in total defense. Zook agrees these are improvements over last year, although the season is still young and the rugged Big 10 race is upcoming.

"We're playing better on defense. We're tackling better, we're not giving up as many big plays. We've got to continue to do that. But we're into the meat of our schedule right now, so the next few games are gonna be pretty critical to what happens."

Several players were moved to new positions in the past three to four weeks to bolster the defense. Are they beginning to adjust?

"I think so. They're trying to do the things the coaches are asking them to do, and the coaches are doing a good job demanding. We feel we have to demand them to be perfect. They may not be perfect, but they're gonna give you a level we'll all be happy with."

Many Illinois fans have been impressed with how much better their defenders are tackling. They're swarming to the ball and putting exclamations on their tackles with aggressive hits.

"To have a good defense, you have to do that. I think what happened last year a little bit, we forget that the first part of last year we played pretty good defense too. It was the end of the season where we kind of fell apart. We have to play the whole season. Take it one game at a time and make sure we're taking care of business."

Special teams also appear improved. Anthony Santella's punting prowess is giving Illini special teams confidence.

"Him and Derek (Dimke, placekicker) are both kicking well, there's no question. It gives them a little pride when they're covering and protecting. I'm happy for both of them.

"For Anthony it's the way he's hitting the ball. That's a lot of field, and it provides an advantage for the whole football team when the average is up. So we're gonna protect, we're gonna cover like heck and make sure he continues to do that."

Despite the statistical evidence, Zook is in no position to glorify any aspect of his team's play. At least not yet. There's still nine games on the schedule, and there will likely be many ups and downs before the season concludes.

"One thing about football, you can't brag too much about anything for if you do, it'll go South on you."

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