The Illini Assistant Coaches: Part I - The Offense

Ron Zook isn't the only one preparing for his first season with the Illini football team. There are also many new assistant coaches and support personnel. Illinisports evaluates the new coaches in this two part series. Today's focus is on the genesis of Ron Zook's coaching staff, and the offensive coaches.

Ron Zook took some time hiring his full compliment of assistant coaches to share the task of revitalizing Illini football. And he lost some good choices along the way. But it appears he has a quality group of assistants, men who are both teachers and recruiters, with whom he can work to accomplish his lofty goals.

One thing seems especially obvious regarding Coach Zook's choices for assistant coaches. He wants people who are highly motivated and upwardly mobile. While some leaders look for "Yes Men" assistants to make them look superior by comparison, Zook looks for people who also aspire to be head coaches. He knows that aggressive, hungry assistants will do the best in recruiting and spend the most hours looking for ways to win. And he is not afraid to lead men who may someday meet or surpass his own level of success.

Ron Zook wants to win, so he hired assistants who share his vision and are winners. Most have had a great deal of previous experience and have had success with major programs. And most are capable of receiving high-salaried job offers from other major programs.

In fact, Coach Zook's early problems hiring assistants stems from their quality and popularity in the coaching profession. Larry Fedora was originally announced as agreeing to follow Zook from Florida to be the Illini's offensive coordinator. But he was then offered at least $100,000.00 more than he was making at Illinois to move to Oklahoma State. He was also offered a multi-year contract that is still uncommon among college football assistants, and he was given the chance to move back to an area of the country near where he grew up.

It is a compliment to Coach Zook that he hired someone of sufficient quality to be desirable to other major programs, but he (and almost everyone else) was unable to match Oklahoma State's offer. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline, another Florida export, also went from Illinois to Oklahoma State to join Fedora after receiving a massive salary increase. These changes were disruptive to Zook's early efforts, but they were understandable.

Randy Melvin was hired briefly to coach defensive line, but he too was lured by a sizeable contract to coach in the pros. It is hard to complain about changes such as these when so much money is being thrown around. Ron Guenther agreed to fund a massive increase in assistant coaches' salaries as a caveat for Zook's hiring, but Melvin, Fedora and Wickline received offers far beyond what Illinois feels is within their budget.

Despite these losses, Coach Zook found excellent replacements. And some of these people may be better than the ones who left prematurely. Based on their backgrounds and their work at Illinois up to now, it appears the Illini have a group of assistants who are talented, personable and hard working. They are a quality group, one that compares favorably with previous Illinois coaching staffs. It may ultimately prove to be one of our best ever. Of course, only time will tell.

Illinois' new offensive coordinator is Mike Locksley. Mike has never been an offensive coordinator before, so there may be a few growing pains. But his career has enjoyed a rapid rise up the ranks, and he is said to be an outstanding prospect to be a future head coach. What he might lack in experience may be counterbalanced by talent and hard work.

Locksley was a three-year letterwinner at safety for Towson University, and he was MVP his senior year. Among his coaching stops, Mike spent six years at Maryland as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, and he held the same job the last two years at Florida. He is considered one of the top recruiters in the country.

Offensive coordinator will be a new position of responsibility for Locksley, but he is familiar with Zook's offensive system and is said to be creative in adapting the offense to take advantage of available talent and opponent mismatches. Fans can be expected to witness a multiple-formation attack with aspects of many offensive strategies mixed together under Locksley. He will not be limited to a restricted number of play options as has happened at Illinois in the recent past.

Mike Locksley will also coach tight ends for the Illini. Joining him to help coach the offense are running back coach Reggie Mitchell, offensive line coach and Run Game Coordinator Ed Warinner, Passing Game Coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher, and receivers coach Dino Dawson.

Reggie Mitchell also carries the titles of Assistant Head Coach and Recruiting Coordinator. He comes to Illinois from Michigan State, where he served as both running backs and receivers coach and also was recruiting coordinator. He spent the 12 years before that with Glen Mason at Kent State, Kansas, and ultimately Minnesota. Reggie was a four-year running back star at Cental Michigan during his college days.

Reggie has been highly successful in the past, and he is an excellent candidate to be a head coach someday. He brings a wealth of experience and maturity to the position. He has inherited some excellent running backs with whom to work at Illinois, and he has already been the lead recruiter for several future prospects who have made commitments to attend Illinois next year. Coach Zook made Coach Mitchell one of his first hires because of his overall quality and compatibility.

Ed Warinner was not the first offensive line coach hired by Zook, but he has impressed this writer with his teaching skill. He may ultimately prove to be an outstanding hire. He appears to have the respect of his players. He is firm, but he isn't excessively restrictive and judgmental as some offensive line coaches. And he is showing signs of being a quality recruiter as well.

Warinner is originally from Ohio and graduated from Mount Union College. He has 21 years of college coaching experience, with the last two at Kansas. Prior to that, Ed spent three years at Air Force Academy, 12 years at Army, two at Michigan State and one at Akron. While he has coached offensive line most of that time, he has experience at a number of positions. He is typical of the kind of experienced, well-rounded person Ron Zook appears to prefer.

Ed Zaunbrecher has been in college coaching for 30 years including five years as head coach at Northeast Louisiana. In that time, his teams have attended 14 bowl games and 42 of his players have made it to pro football. As a quarterback coach, Zaunbrecher has groomed such prominent quarterbacks as Rex Grossman, Chris Leak, Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington, Tommy Hodson and Jim Miller.

Coach Zaunbrecher followed Zook from Florida. Before that three year stint, he coached at Marshall, Michigan State, LSU, Wake Forest, Purdue and Arizona. In addition to all this experience and previous success, Zaunbrecher brings a tremendous knowledge of the quarterback position and how to coach it. He is a take-charge guy with the knowledge and confidence to speak with authority and enthusiasm. Of all the comparisons between this new coaching staff and Illinois' previous one, this one might be the most contrasting. It is believed Illini quarterbacks will continue to improve under Coach Zaunbrecher's leadership.

Receivers coach Dino Dawson began his playing career at Ohio State as a receiver and kick returner before graduating from Wayne State University. He is described as an excellent recruiter who has also had much experience coaching a variety of positions at the college level. Included among his college jobs were stops at Cincinnati, Toledo, Bowling Green, Tuskegee, and Illinois State. Women who attended Coach Zook's special camp for women this summer bragged about Coach Dawson's effervescent personality. It is easy to see why players and recruits enjoy bening around him.

In tomorrow's Part II of this introduction to the Illinois Coaching Staff, Illinisports will look at the defensive coaches.

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