Ron Zooks Discusses Illini Prospects

The Fighting Illini football team began spring drills today, and the players and coaches are thrilled to be back on the field. After a winning season in 2010 and victory in the Texas Bowl, there is renewed optimism about 2011. Ron Zook talks about the status of the team as it enters the spring.

Illinois coach Ron Zook shared his thoughts on the beginning of spring football practice at his press conference Tuesday.

"It's always exciting to get started, get back to practice and get back on the field. Today is the beginning of our third phase. There are six phases in a year, and at the end of each phase we talk about what we accomplished in that phase. And then we talk about our goals for the (upcoming) phase.

"So far, I feel very good about the first two phases. The way we've come through things with the recruiting and our winter program, and the way we started off today. Obviously, it's a big difference from the first day last year when we had all of the new people."

Zook remembers how six new assistant coaches were feeling their way with their new team last year at this time. Poor center snaps were also a frustration as the Illini made beginning steps toward a quality season. The difference between last year and this is obvious, and Zook wants to continue moving forward and upward.

"Our goal as a football team is to take where we finished and build on that. Not go backwards but go forward. I really feel they've bought into that, and they've talked about it since the day we've been back.

"It gives us an opportunity to continue to get better. There isn't any reason why we shouldn't improve in all three phases offensively, defensively and special teams. I think this football team understands we've got to continue to improve, and we're excited about that.

"The coaches know the players, the players know the coaches. When you're in a situation like that, you do the things the players do best. The players have confidence in the things they do best. The stability allows you to expand on the things you've done well and get away from the things that maybe didn't go quite as well."

Zook spoke about offensive goals for the spring.

"There's no question we've got to continue in the passing game. If you go back to last season and split it in half and look at the first six games statistically and the last six games statistically, offensively we were pretty good the last six games."

Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase made significant progress in his passing as the year progressed, and more is needed. But Zook did not wish to single out his quarterback.

"The passing game is not just Nathan, it's everybody. We've got to make more big plays. Coach (Paul) Petrino always talks about feeding the studs. We've got to turn five to ten yard passes into 50 and 60 yard gains. We've got to take some of those short gains, the things the defense gives us, and turn those into big plays."

With Corey Lewis sitting out as he recovers from knee surgery, an offensive tackle must step up this spring. And the Illini need more depth throughout the lineup.

"We've got to find a strong tackle. We've got to get our four best guys inside. Spring's a time particularly for the young guys; this is their chance to get why they came play."

The Illini lose stars Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson from the defensive front, and replacements need to be found. But Zook spoke in more general terms.

"Defensively, we've got to continue to cut down on the number of big plays, and create turnovers. That's our big stresses this spring, not giving up big plays and creating turnovers to get the ball back for the offense."

The Illini also have a hole to fill on special teams after the graduation of All-Big 10 punter Anthony Santella.

"Obviously, we've got to solidify our punting game. We feel good about our protection and snapper, but we've got to come up with a punter.

"For extra points and field goals, we've got an awfully good kicker (Derek Dimke). We've got to make sure we get the right holder. When you lose Anthony, you not only lose a great punter, you lose an awfully good holder. We'll get that solidified this spring and at least have a pretty good idea where we are going into the fall."

In a departure from previous springs, weekday practices will begin at 7:00 am. Zook was frustrated how some players had to miss parts of practices for late afternoon classes and early evening exams. This change may solve the problem without creating an unnecessary burden on the players.

"What happened in the fall, we got caught on both ends. Guys were late because of class, and guys had to leave early. There was a short window. So we said we'd try early in the morning and see how that goes.

"A lot of people around the country have gone to it. I've kind of wanted to do it since I've been a head coach. But I always worried about the other end. When you get up early, will the players get tired and so forth?

"I've talked to a lot of coaches, and they love it. They feel like it's even helped them academically. Seven o'clock is not that early. For the most part, by 11:00 am they're done.

"I feel good about it, and they feel good about it. They enjoyed it in the winter program, the lifting and the running in the mornings. They don't have to worry all day long about having to go to practice, it's over with."

Zook planned this prior to the scheduling of spring semester classes to make sure everyone would be available in the mornings.

"When they scheduled the classes for the semester, we did it with this in mind. The afternoon classes are at some weird times. So we get the part that we need to get done, and then they can do the things they need to do academically."

Assuming the spring workouts go smoothly, fall practices might follow the same schedule.

"We'll try to do it this way in the fall. That's the reason we're doing it now, to see how we'll like it and how our players adjust to it. If you go back and look, in the fall two days a week they're lifting early anyway. By 7 o'clock, most people are up and going by then."

Injuries force the Illini into some depth issues at receiver this spring. Senior A.J. Jenkins and sophomore Darius Millines will miss the spring due to surgeries.

"A.J. has a little crack in his wrist. They put a pin in there, and he'll be fine. Darius's was the very beginning of a stress fracture in his foot. They pinned Darius, and he will be fine. I didn't want it to go any longer. I wanted to get it fixed so he'll be able to go in the summer."

Tight end Zach Becker missed most of last year with stress fractures in both feet that didn't heal properly. The Illini didn't want to see a repeat situation with Millines.

"Nick (Ritchey, athletic trainer) has done an unbelievable job of trying to gather information around the country."

Millines and Becker may not see any spring scrimmaging, but they should be ready to go soon after.

"Darius is maybe 2-3 weeks out, and then he might start doing a few things. The doctor felt very good about where Zach Becker is. There's a chance he can be doing some things later in the spring. But let's make sure we've got him in the fall."

Looking on the bright side, younger receivers may get the reps necessary to provide additional depth this fall while the lettermen sit out.

"It gives the other receivers an opportunity to compete. That's the one thing about the spring. Obviously, Darius is a young guy, and you'd like to have him go through the spring. But Paul won't let him get too far away from it. He'll be in the huddle and know what's going on, both him and A.J."

The Illini are also cautious with Supo Sanni, a likely safety starter when healthy. Achilles tendon surgery is less common than many injuries, so the Illini want to make sure he has no relapse.

"Supo did quite a bit out there today. It's a little bit untested waters because there's not many people, there's two in this conference, him and the quarterback at Northwestern. We're being very careful with him.

"He went through individual today, and he looked very good to me. I'd like to get him back to it slowly. It'll be up to Dr. (Robert) Gurtler, but hopefully by the end of spring. He's chomping at the bit. He's a big ol' pretty sucker."

Current Illini freshmen who did not earn playing time last fall had few opportunities to prove themselves and gain experience with Illini schemes. Zook reminds spring is a great time for them to blossom within the system.

"You look at those freshmen. This is their time. They get to go play. They're not playing the other team's offense and defense. Now they're playing our offense and our defense. I'm excited about these young offensive linemen. Those guys have competed all fall, competed in the winter program. Everybody matures at a different rate. I'm excited to see what they can do."

Spring practices are often more laid back than fall, when intensity builds for the start of the season. Yet several players encountered disagreements with teammates on the first day of practice.

"There were a couple squabbles out there today, and we were only in shorts. You've got competitive coaches, you've got competitive players. I think it makes for an exciting spring."

It hopefully will make for a productive spring as well.

"Today was a good starting point, but we've still got a long way to go. I like the attitude, and I like what they've done to this date from the day we got back (from the bowl game). With the attitude we have, there's no reason to think we're not gonna make the improvements we're supposed to make."

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