Playing O'Toole Not Controversial For Zook

It's always great to begin a new football season with a victory. The Fighting Illini did that for the first time since 2006 with a convincing win over Arkansas State Saturday. As always, Illini coach Ron Zook reviewed the previous day's events on Sunday for the media. He explained why he played freshman Reilly O'Toole, but otherwise there were few concerns after a win.

Illinois coach Ron Zook enjoyed numerous aspects of his Illini's 33-15 triumph over an athletic but outmanned Arkansas State team. One of the most significant was a feat rarely accomplished. The Illini played the entire game without a single penalty. It was the first time since the Wisconsin game 18 years ago that has happened, and Zook was understandably pleased.

"I did like it. I think that's a tribute to the coaches. We've been demanding of the players. They want to please, they want to do well. There was probably some they could have called both ways, but I thought the officials did a nice job of letting them play. Offensively and defensively, to get through the game without a penalty is pretty good."

Does he recall a similar game?

"No I don't. The penalties I get upset about are the dumb penalties. When guys are playing aggressively, occasionally you're gonna have some penalties. But the dumb penalties are the ones that you can't have."

Zook was also excited about the health of his players. There were no major injuries, and a potential problem was averted thanks to alert medical staff.

"We really are very fortunate. I don't think I've ever played or coached in a game where we had no one cramp up. I think that's a tribute to our trainers and doctors. That didn't just happen on Saturday; we started on Wednesday because we knew it was gonna be hot."

He provided a status report on minor injuries suffered by Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan, A.J. Jenkins and Reilly O'Toole.

"Akeem's got a sprained ankle, but he's much better today. He's fine. Mike has got a very low-grade sprain of his knee. He should be fine. A.J. has a quad bruise.

"Reilly has a sore shoulder. It's just a sprain, nothing major there either. He'll be sore throwing tomorrow, but that's about the worst thing. Other than that, we're in pretty good shape."

The fact the freshman O'Toole played at all created great consternation among a number of fans. Truth be known, Illini coaches planned to play the rookie all along as an insurance policy against injury to starter Nathan Scheelhaase.

"We'll get Reilly on the field as much as we can. We've got to start getting him ready to go. Like I said Saturday, God forbid if something should happen to Nathan, we're gonna need both him and Miles (Osei). We don't want to get caught, and we all think Reilly can help us win. So let's get him ready to go."

Zook believes it is too risky to redshirt O'Toole and assume Scheelhaase will remain healthy through a brutal 12 game season. Plus, O'Toole has the ability to help the team early in his career.

"Yeah, I think so. I just want to win games right now. I think he's gonna help us. It's like what we've done with freshmen all the time. We don't want freshmen to come in here and want to redshirt. The quarterback spot is a little bit different, but you want guys that come in here and play. He's earned that opportunity."

O'Toole completed one of two passes and ran for a five yard gain. And he made a play surprising for a rookie on the play he hurt his shoulder.

"He knew there was probably a pretty good chance he was gonna get in. Even though he didn't get rid of the ball as fast as he would have liked once, it was a great read because it was a hot read when the guy hit him. He just didn't see him quite quick enough. To me, that's pretty impressive that he would even realize the corner coming from the boundary."

Zook played both O'Toole and Osei Saturday, and he will continue to seek opportunities for each to gain experience.

"We were gonna play them both. As we go along, I don't know if we will play them both like we did yesterday. But right now, that was our plan."

Seven true freshmen saw their first college action in the opener. Besides O'Toole, running backs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, punter Justin DuVernois, tight end Jon Davis, receiver Jordan Frysinger and defensive back Valdon Cooper all played. Zook was asked if any others would join the list.

"I think there's a good chance you'll see those two linebackers (Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson). You've got to remember, in his first few games Corey Liuget played one play. That was three years ago. Freshmen in their first game, their eyes are wide open. I think you'll see a couple of them probably."

Zook was asked to assess the play of Scheelhaase, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns but gained only 24 net yards on 12 rushes.

"I'd say his passing game was really good. I'd say his running game was above average, but not as good as it could be and will be. But if there was one guy that didn't play as great as you'd want him to, who would you want it to be? It would be Nathan because you know he's gonna fix it.

"That's the first time Nathan's played live football since December. It's a little bit different. But I'd rather find out in the first game than in a scrimmage myself. He'll be fine; I don't worry about Nathan."

The offense held the ball for nearly 35 minutes, keeping the ball away from the vaunted Red Wolves passing game. On an extremely hot day, that was especially helpful for the Illinois defense.

"One thing that helps the defense is if they stay off the field. I think we had 64 plays. When the offense keeps the ball, they're over there sitting on the bench. In the second half when we could have been tired, we were still pretty fresh."

The offense was proficient, but Zook wishes the game had been on Friday.

"I told Paul (Petrino) this. If we had played Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, I think we would probably have played way, way better. But that's one side of the ball I have no concerns about. I feel very confident that these guys will get them ready to go. It's hard to maintain that peak level for 24 hours.

"Friday night when we were practicing, it just seemed like, wow, we were on fire. You always worry about peaking at the right time. We did a lot of good things, and we probably did some things that were probably not as good as you'd like them to."

The Illini substituted only Tyler Sands along the offensive line. Zook wishes to make amends for that this week against South Dakota State.

"I think we've got to play more offensive linemen. That's one thing we'll try to do this week is play more guys."

The Illini special teams played well Saturday, and freshman punter DuVernois held his own against brisk Memorial Stadium winds. While some fans hope the Illini never again use Ryan Lankford for a rugby style kick (they won't get their wish), the only question on the subject pertained to using Lankford on punt returns.

Jack Ramsey held the role last year, and Terry Hawthorne is a sentimental favorite with fans. But Lankford appears to have won the job for now, and Zook defended his day.

"It's a weekly thing. Ryan did a great job. If you look at the one he went backwards, thank God he did catch it because it probably would have rolled about 20 yards had he not done that. The one that bounced on the one yard line landed on the four, so he made the right decision.

"With these rollout punters and all, it's harder to get the kind of returns you'd like to have. Terry is still very much involved, as is Jack. But we felt right now Ryan is probably doing just a little bit better."

If concerns about punt returners and redshirting freshmen are the biggest problems for this Illini team, it will be a season to remember.

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