The Illinois football team has been striving to overcome a number of issues both on the field and off this past week. While four straight losses cast doubt on a once-promising season, the accidental shooting of senior leader Trulon Henry magnified the problems facing the team.
Extreme adversity can bring people together for a common purpose; it appears that may be happening to the Fighting Illini players and coaches. The loss to Michigan last Saturday was disconcerting, especially since the Illini appeared to play tight, a fraction of their one-time swagger.
The early Sunday morning shooting of Henry, when he was trying to help out some teammates, cast an even darker cloud on the Illinois program. But Henry, who is considered an outstanding leader, may be bringing his team together through his misfortune in a manner he could not have anticipated.
The Illini are preparing to take on nationally ranked Wisconsin for Senior Day at Memorial Stadium Saturday. Out of necessity, our normal practice week report will be four articles in one due to all the issues surrounding the team this week. Besides the Henry story, sections will include how the team is handling the losing streak and pressure on head coach Ron Zook; a normal practice week report; and a discussion on what is happening with the Illini offense.
Trulon Henry Leads From A Hospital Bed
Trulon Henry was called by some younger members of the Illini team early Sunday morning to give them a ride away from a fraternity party that was becoming ugly. While there, shots rang out and three bystanders were shot. Henry was hit in his ring finger, requiring surgery. His brother Arrelious "Rejus" Benn, a starting receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, flew in to provide moral support and shared good news.
"He's doing great. I'm here to support him and make sure he's all right. He's in great spirits, so he's pretty good with that."
One of Henry's closest friends on the team is senior cornerback Tavon Wilson. Holding back tears, Wilson shared Henry's message for teammates and Illini Nation.
"He wants us to stay together. Trulon's fine. Every time we talk he says, 'Keep those guys together.' I tell him that's really important to me. Trulon always talks about keep fighting. He is a fighting person; he's overcome a lot of things in his life.
"He's done great things for us here at the University of Illinois and got us moving in the right direction. So this is an opportunity for us to finish what he started."
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase put things into perspective about Henry as a person and the situation in general.
"His presence and what he brings, the playing speaks for itself. But he's a guy you love to have in the locker room. It's been a blessing to have him here. It'll be different not having him in the locker room and playing. He'll still be there, we're hoping.
"It's tough because that's a guy everybody likes. There's only a couple guys in the locker room everybody respects and likes, and he is definitely one of those guys. He's one of my favorite people to be around in my entire life.
"It's crazy how quickly football can become something that's in our back thoughts when something like that happens. As far as the mood of the team, I think we've moved forward. We've dealt not only with that situation but what happened on Saturday and moved forward. That's what you've got to do. There's no time to sit and sulk, no time to have a pity party.
"Thank God Tru is still with us. Thank God that nobody else was killed in the event."
Offensive lineman Jeff Allen rearranged his priorities upon hearing of the trauma.
"It was a really tough weekend. I totally forgot about football this weekend. I'm just happy it wasn't a bad situation. It was a lesson learned, and it wasn't the worst lesson."
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus says others must step up and handle Henry's leadership responsibilities.
"My heart goes out to him. We need him back on the team. He's one of our top leaders, and he was the anchor for our defense. Things happen in life, and we have to have other leaders step up in a great way, especially for this week."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, formerly a head coach himself, knows how tough it is to be in charge of a program. Having to deal with outside issues makes it much tougher. He feels Ron Zook dealt with the situation as well as anyone could.
"Coach Zook handled it very well with the players I thought. We learned a lesson without learning a lesson. It surely could have been a lot worse. Trulon was trying to help. College students are gonna be college students. I thought Coach handled it extremely well."
Saturday is Senior Day. Henry is now out of the hospital and expected to join his teammates on the field for the pregame ceremony. At least, Illini players hope and pray he can be there even if he can't play in his last home game.
"It would mean a lot," Wilson understates. "We're expecting him to be there, and he would want to be there. He just wants us to go out there and play the best way we can play."
"It would mean a lot. Tru is definitely someone you'd want to go out there and die for. Having him not out on the field playing with us on Senior Day is kind of sad."
Allen says the Illini have much to play for Saturday. Adding Henry to the list is their pleasure.
"It makes us want to go out and do more for Trulon because he's such a great leader. He was put in a bad situation by being a leader. So us going out and playing hard for him makes the situation much better."
Perhaps Henry can serve as an even better leader this week than he ever could hope to provide if he were playing in the game.
Handling The Losing Streak and Accompanying Naysayers
Some members of Illini Nation have been demanding a head coaching change at Illinois since early in the disastrous 2009 season. Every time there is a problem, they repeat their mantras. In the last couple years, more have joined the chorus, the sound of which can appear deafening at times.
When the Illini were on their six game winning streak to begin the season, they kept mostly quiet except when mistakes or problems occurred. The naysayers have been increasingly encouraged each of the past four weeks when the Illini lost games to Big 10 opponents, three of which have decidedly better personnel.
Now, Illini players hear angry fans wherever they go. They try to ignore them, but it can be difficult. It's an even bigger problem when they are also working to resolve issues that have prevented them from continuing their winning ways.
Players see their films and know they are making careless mistakes at critical times. They know they can play better and want to get their mojo back. But deep inside they're afraid for their season and especially their coaching staff. They were uplifted by comments Benn made to them as a team early this week.
"You've got to be patient. You deal with the circumstances we're dealing with. Coach Zook has great coaches around here now. You've got to know the stresses that come with being a head coach. It's not an easy job; it's hard to win games.
"You've got to find a way to win games each week. Not many can step up and be a head coach, do what Coach Zook is doing. He's an outstanding coach, and he's a great recruiter also."
While Benn refused to say what he shared with the team, Allen provided a brief summation.
"Rejus told us to keep fighting. He told us we're not far away, we've just got to stick together as a family and believe that we can win games. It's no different between us starting 6-0 and us losing four straight. We just have to keep that same belief in the team and go out and execute."
Coaches tell players that all the time. Did hearing it from Benn help?
"Definitely. The guy had success here and at the next level. Hearing it from him helps."
Scheelhaase is also a team leader. He may not be speaking for every Illini player, but his feelings about Coach Zook are repeated throughout the team.
"I feel for him because I know the man he is. It's frustrating when things are said. He has my back whenever things are said about me. It's tough as a coach; people don't always have your back. I feel for him, and I feel for his family.
"It's crazy when people come down on coaches; after what happened last weekend, fans are in their houses worried about what the coaches are doing, what the players are doing, and not praying for Tru and the other people who were hurt. They're crazy in my mind."
Mercilus says the team is trying to stay in the moment and ignore outside distractions. Those looking in from the outside don't see what is really taking place within the team.
"Nobody understands what's going on in the locker room. Only you do. That's all you've got to concentrate on.
"It's been a little chaotic. (The loss) makes you sick to your stomach, and after that you hear Trulon's been hurt. But the morale in the locker room is that we're gonna work that much harder to try to get this win for our teammate. He's a senior, and we want to send him out in the right way. Our other seniors also."
Allen was asked if he expected the current losing streak.
"No, I didn't have a clue it would be like this. It's an unfortunate situation. We've got to keep fighting."
He explains how important it is to ignore the naysayers.
"Those type of things are distractions. We have to eliminate those things. We talk to the younger players all the time about that. We tell them to stay positive and stay toward the goal."
Despite the shooting incident and another that added two redshirt freshmen to the police blotter the same night, the Illini team appears to be as close-knit as any other time this season. Scheelhaase defends his peers.
"It's hard to tell what's going on from an outside perspective. All I know is, I'd give anything to be around these guys every single day. I'd give anything to step on the field with them again on Saturday."
Understandably, Zook refused to talk about his job security despite constant nagging from pesky journalists. He wants to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Consistent with his universal effort, he has been working to uplift battered egos and heal unresolved issues this week.
"You talk about it. You talk about it a ton, about where we are and where we're going. You know, there's not a lot more you can do other than handle what you have. I told them Sunday afternoon that we learned a lesson before, maybe, it could have been a critical lesson.
"I don't fault anybody for what happened this weekend, other than maybe being out late. But they weren't the guys playing, they were the guys that don't play. Just like you probably would have done with your own children, you don't want them out late. If they're out late, then what are you gonna do? I think that's part of growing up.
"When you've got problems, that's when you find out what kind of person you are. You've just got to keep on keeping on and work through it."
Koenning has observed Zook first hand this week. He is impressed.
"I feel for presidents and head coaches. I know it's really hard. Even when you win, you're sometimes not happy because one phase doesn't do well. You're upset about that. It's a thankless job. It tears your body up in a knot. I can relate to any and all of that.
"I think he's done a really good job of being positive and casting a positive influence to our players. He's never stopped preaching the right things as far as morals and integrity, doing academics, doing the right thing. If you lose sight of what those things are in lieu of results, then you may win the battle but lose the war. I'm proud of him for being that way. I have a lot of respect for him."
Wisconsin Practice Week
Sometimes, combining a losing streak with outside adversity dulls a team's desire to prepare hard and with confidence for its next opponent. The opposite appears to be the case at Illinois this week. Wilson was asked what he has learned about the team this week.
"I learned that we are fighters. Every week is a new week. Obviously, we lost the last four games, but everybody's coming in with a new attitude ready to work. That's big. It's hard to come in after a loss and work the way we work.
"Every week we have a great week of practice, and we'll continue to practice that way. Our coaches demand that, our leaders demand that. That's something that I admire about our team. We're a fighting team; we're never gonna give up.
"We know we're capable of being a great team. Nobody has to do more than they have to do. We just want people to do what they're capable of doing. Trust your teammates. We feel like we're good enough to win.
"There are a lot of distractions, but everyone has adversity. Everybody gets knocked down; it's how you get back up.
"We've just got to stay together, that's the biggest thing. That is what everybody is pushing for. It doesn't matter what other people think. The only thing that matters is what the people in our locker room think. We're gonna stay together and keep fighting."
Like all sports, minor differences can lead to major changes of fortune. Zook says you can feed off of positive momentum and go on winning streaks like the 6-0 start to this season.
"I think football a lot of times becomes a mental game. You get a break here, you get a break there, you make a play here, and you make a play there. Things can happen and it can kind of go on."
But when things are going poorly on the field and your normal behavior patterns are backfiring, changing things sometimes helps. It appears Zook, who has never experienced a reversal of fortunes like the 2011 season, is looking at a number of possibilities.
"That's why we're gonna make some changes. I think you have to make changes; you have to do things differently. Otherwise, you're going to get the same results. I think we owe that to the fans as well, to do some things differently.
"There will be some (different) things out there. I'm not going to get into exactly what we're going to do. But I think you have to do some things differently, if nothing else, just to change up. Things that have happened are not for lack of hard work or not lack of practice or not for the lack of preparation.
"These guys have worked their tails off...practices have been good. They're doing everything that they can do, but we as a coaching staff, we've got to help them. Whether it be different plays, different players, different tempo, whatever it is we've got to do it to help them."
One change some fans would like to see is at quarterback. The second string quarterback is always the most popular player on the team, and Reilly O'Toole has that distinction this year. Whether he is an improvement over Scheelhaase is questionable, but Illini quarterback coach Jeff Brohm says O'Toole is prepared should they decide to go that route.
"He's ready to go. He's played well, he's come in and moved the team. Unfortunately, we've turned it over a couple times with him.
"I think both guys play hard, compete hard. We're gonna get both of them ready to go, and both are gonna play this week."
Illini special teams have broken down at times this season; different aspects break down at different times, but they always lead back to the head coach. While he doesn't have a major role in special teams, Koenning was asked his evaluation of the situation.
"It's probably a lot of stuff. The thing that I've been trying to talk about for a long time is developing depth. An unwritten rule of coaching is, that's the first sign of a lack of depth. It hurts you in your special teams. It's hard when you have inexperience. I've got that issue on defense, so I can relate to that."
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was the Illini's golden boy last year after creating a potent offensive attack that excited Illini Nation. Through the first six games this season, fans feared losing him to his inevitable head coaching job. Some even wanted to see Zook fired so Illinois could hire Petrino to replace him.
Then, when the Illini go 0-4 against Big 10 teams, three of which have tremendous talent and are accustomed to tons of success, the offense stagnates. Dominant defenses find cracks in Illini armor, individual players make mistakes at key times, and suddenly fans want to punish the coaches.
These are the same coaches with the same systems as early in the season, but suddenly they can do nothing right. They are said to lack imaginative play-calling, are unwilling to adapt and use trick plays or change personnel, and are generally incompetent. Whatever the excuses, revenge is demanded.
To their credit, Illini offensive coaches are not letting the noise hinder their confidence. Petrino in particular is constantly preaching a positive mental attitude to his players, and he backs it up with his personal approach to life.
"I'm not gonna lose my confidence. I've been in this thing my whole life. It's the only thing I've ever done. I'm always gonna believe in what the roots are, having a passion, coaching as hard as you can, doing whatever you can.
"At the end of the day, if you can look in the mirror and say you've done everything you can, you can keep your head up high, your chest up high and believe in yourself. I can look anyone in the eye and say I worked my ass off. So my confidence is great.
"That's the biggest thing, get your personality over to everybody else. As long as we can all go out there and give it everything we've got, then you can look in the mirror and be proud of yourselves. If you can't do that, then we've got to get that fixed."
How do you recreate what has been lost these last few weeks?
"You build on everything that we've done. We did a bunch of great things early in the year, got 6 wins right off the bat.
"We watched the tape (of the Michigan game), and it's never as bad as you think. People outside can say whatever they want about you. We're three plays in the first quarter from converting first downs. Then you can convert them all, score a lot of points, and then you're doing real well.
"We're not gonna panic and think the world's ending. We're gonna keep fighting and get better."
Last year, opponents reminded constantly how tough it was to prepare for a Petrino offense. While it may appear to outsiders he is running the same plays all the time, in truth he is running the same plays from different formations and different plays from the same formations. When all the players perform their jobs properly, it works.
Unfortunately, there is no star running back like Mikel Leshoure on the team. Two fifth year senior linemen graduated, and one was replaced by a redshirt freshman who played Class 1-A high school ball and could have benefitted from an extra year or two of seasoning.
Different years bring different problems; this year, there has been a snowball effect. All 11 players must perform as one unit. If one person breaks down, the entire offense breaks down.
Redshirt freshman Alex Hill, starting his first game while Hugh Thornton recovers from knee surgery, was guilty of a false start on the first play of the game Saturday. Understandably nervous, but the Illini were behind the chains from the start. One thing led to another from then on.
"It's definitely not one group," Petrino reminds. "It's a little bit of everybody. Everyone's got to do their job to be successful. Everyone makes mistakes once in awhile, you just can't make them on third down. On third down, we've got to all do our job. That's how you keep our offense on the field and their offense off the field."
Allen agrees with Petrino.
"People on the outside might think it looks really bad, but when we come in and look at film, there's little small things. We're this close from making a big play and turning things around. It's just a lack of execution. As an offense, you've got to come out and play together every play.
"On the offensive line, it's all about cohesion. We all have to play as one. Any time you lose a guy, it can mess up the rhythm. People get hurt in football, so it is up to the young guys to step up and pick up the slack."
Teams have learned how to defend the Illini: blitz unmercifully. If the linemen break down, or if the running back doesn't protect properly, the quarterback has no time to find an open receiver. Scheelhaase must see rushing linemen in his sleep. Two 14 yard losses on sacks last week ended possessions.
If the Illini can't establish a running game, the entire system degenerates. When you get behind early in a game, you have to pass more to catch up. It becomes impossible to keep the defense off balance according to Brohm.
"Obviously, when you've got to throw the ball more than you want, you're gonna get a lot more crazy looks from the defense, more pressure, and we did. That's part of being a quarterback, being able to stand in there and block all that stuff out and make plays.
"Last year our running game was so good, we threw when we wanted to throw, not when we had to. This year, we've had to throw a little more than we wanted. That's all part of the learning process.
"When you play good teams, you're gonna have to be efficient in the passing game and find ways to get completions and move the chains. That's something we've got to keep working at."
Scheelhaase has a great receiver in A.J. Jenkins. But he tends to lock into him, telegraphing his intentions to the opponent.
"I know he feels comfortable with A.J.," Brohm continues. "We won a couple games early in the year by those two making plays. Do we need to get a lot more people involved and make sure we spread it around so they can't concentrate on one? Yes.
"He's got to realize, let's throw to the open guy. Don't force it to one guy. But, if that guy's one-on-one, we want to get it to him. It's kind of a fine line of making sure we spread it around and not force it when he's not open, but don't pass him up when he's one-on-one."
Blitzing limits time for following progressions. Scheelhaase is a good runner, but staying in the pocket long enough for receivers to break open has become a problem at times.
"That's part of it. Sometimes you will, and sometimes you won't. Sometimes when you're winning, it's a lot easier to throw. When you're losing and throw a lot, then the pressure's on the throw.
"What I told him, when you're getting heat and pressure, a lot better things happen when you move up in the pocket and try to find a lane to throw. If not, then you've got a lane to run.
"He did that a lot more in the second half. First half, he was trying to get outside. When you play good teams, getting outside is not the answer.
"I said, 'You'll know when you have to get outside because there's a huge wall in front of you. But first, you've got to get up in that pocket and buy some time for guys to get open. Find a lane to throw. If you do that, it will be a natural movement for you to run and make plays.' He did that second half, and it was much better."
The Illini offense has lost confidence through the losing streak. Getting it back Saturday will be tough against a strong Wisconsin defense. Perhaps Illini players have tightened up as doubt has crept in.
They are trying to relax and have fun again. They know how to play; they are extremely well coached. If they can relax and trust in their knowledge and abilities, they will begin to perform like everyone expects of them. And then fans will remember how good Illini coaches really are.