The Illini Assistant Coaches: Part II The Defense

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 defensive coaches.

Mike Mallory was retained by Coach Zook from Ron Turner's Illini staff to remain as Defensive Coordinator and inside linebacker coach. This is his fifth year at Illinois. He and his brother Curt, Illinois' new defensive backs coach, are sons of former Indiana University football coach Bill Mallory and are graduates of Michigan. This helped make them appealing to Zook because of his immense respect for Bill Mallory. Fortunately, they also are highly qualified for their positions.

While Mike Mallory will be making defensive calls and organizing practices, he will be using Zook's defense and terminology. So he will have to make some changes from before. But he has been a defensive coordinator at both Rhode Island and Northern Illinois before Illinois, so he is not without experience and potential. He will undoubtedly benefit from Zook's personal approach since Zook has been a defensive coach for most of his career. Perhaps together, Mallory and Zook can help inspire the Illini defense to rise to the challenge and compete favorably for victories against quality Big 10 opponents.

Curt Mallory has 12 years of college coaching experience, the latest coaching the secondary at Indiana. He is said to be an excellent young coaching prospect with a bright future. And Coach Zook labels him a potentially great recruiter. He has already shown some of that skill in his brief months with the Illini. Coach Zook has coached the defensive secondary for many years, so he will help Curt Mallory in preparing his troops for battle.

Dan Disch will coach outside linebackers and will assist Coach Zook with special teams. While he is in only his second year of college coaching, he is highly experienced. Disch had excellent success as head coach at Ed White high school in Jacksonville, Florida, for 16 years before joining Zook at Florida and now Illinois. Disch is another one of Zook's top recruiters, his playful personality being attractive to numerous top athletes.

The new defensive line coach is Tom Sims. A graduate of Pittsburgh, Coach Sims played defensive line for seven years in the NFL with Kansas City, Indianapolis and Minnesota. He also brings much experience as a coach, spending the last four years with Minnesota after also coaching at Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky. His Minnesota defensive line improved markedly in his time there.

Tom Sims may have been a last-minute replacement for the NFL bound Randy Melvin, but spring practices proved him to be more than an adequate replacement. Some have said Coach Zook was amazed that Sims was available at all, especially considering his quality coaching and recruiting. Some others have said Minnesota head man Glen Mason may have had second thoughts about letting him go.

Sims demonstrated that he is a teacher who spends quality time with his linemen. It may be asking a lot to expect Illinois' young defensive linemen to dominate at the major college level this year, but several showed much improvement this spring under Sims' tutelage. Coach Sims has his players' ear and their respect. If he also has a key to helping our defensive linemen make necessary improvement, he would then be considered one of Coach Zook's best hires. We can't say for sure, but early results are promising.

Every major college football team is limited to nine assistant position coaches, but any discussion of coaching staffs must also include the strength and conditioning coach. This is the person responsible for the physical improvement of the entire team. He spends more time throughout the year with the players, including the summer, than any other member of the coaching staff. He is with them almost daily, and his philosophy and approach must be in accord with the wishes and needs of his head coach.

Coach Zook appears to have hired a good one in Lou Fernandez. It remains to be seen if Illinois' players can become strong enough and flexible enough to compete on even terms with the bulked up behemoths at some of the other Big 10 schools. But he is doing some things that are different than past strength and conditioning coaches at Illinois, and improvements have been noticed.

For instance, Fernandez is requiring his troops to do many drills to strengthen their abdominal muscles, an often overlooked and undervalued part of a football player's anatomy. And he is pushing them with heavier weights than in the past, working on the players' explosiveness and raw strength. He is adapting the exercises to fit the individualized needs of the different positions. And he is making the players work at a tempo that mimics the quickness of a no-huddle offense. They must be able to run more plays more quickly than most other teams, and Fernandez is getting them ready to be in top shape for this style of play.

The results of Fernandez's effort will not be known until the end of the season, and the long-term benefits will require even longer to determine. Of course, his ability to train his players is dependent on athletes willing to work diligently and efficiently to make the improvements that are possible. But up to now, it appears Lou Fernandez is doing an excellent job.

This writer has seen many assistant coaching staffs come and go over the years, and it can be difficult to compare them. The Illini have had some outstanding individual coaches in the past who never received the recognition due them for their outstanding teaching and motivating skills. There have been many others who have had only limited positive effect on the Illini players but have gone onto bigger and better job opportunities. Reasonable evaluations are difficult at best.

But as a group, this new Illini football coaching staff is filled with personable, energetic, experienced, and mature people who are excited to be at Illinois, enthused about meeting the challenges ahead, driven to work long hours, and ebullient about winning. They are accustomed to success, and they crave more, both for the Illini and for personal advancement.

They may not be big winners in their first year, but winning is likely in their future. They are a good group.

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