Ron Zook's Coaching Philosophy: Offense

Ok, we have a new football coach, and everyone is excited about the possibility of improvement in Illini teams. But what is Coach Zook's offensive and defensive philosophy? Illinisports gives an overview of what we might expect from the new regime. In this second part of a two part series, Illinisports will look at Ron Zook's offensive philosophies.

Offensively, Coach Zook uses a spread offense with multiple formations and a no-huddle attack. He wants the offense to be the kind that always caused him problems as a defensive coach, so he will spread the field to isolate individuals in mismatch situations. And he will emphasize speeding up or otherwise varying the timing between plays, making it difficult if not impossible for defenses to change personnel between plays to fit the down and distance.

Mike Locksley is the offensive coordinator, so it will be his job to call the plays. He has never had this responsibility before, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he can get past the mistakes common in new situations. The sooner he can get comfortable in his role, the sooner the Illini can score big on opponents.

The new Illini offense will be about as diverse as is possible in college football. The offense shown at the Spring Game was purposefully limited to prevent scouts from learning too much, but there is no play, formation or personnel grouping that will be unused if needed. Much of the offense will operate from the shotgun, but there will also be some option as well as the more typical two-back formations used by the Illini in recent years.

Since the Illini have a fullback in Jason Davis who can both run and receive effectively, fullback will play a prominent role this year. Davis will be used both in two-back and one-back situations. In the future, there will be even more use of the one-back to allow more receivers to enter the passing zones quickly. But talented runners like Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall need running opportunites, so a fullback will be used some of the time to provide the running backs with one more blocker.

The Illini will spread defenders all over the field. Since the top college programs have 200 pound cornerbacks with both strength and great speed, Coach Zook will be looking for tall, strong receivers for the outside positions to battle those cornerbacks physically and compete successfully for balls thrown in tight coverage. He would like at least one of those receivers to have the deep speed to blow by some of those talented corners and spread the field further.

One slot receiver will need to be among our fastest players because Zook and Locksley like to isolate that person against a slower linebacker or safety. He might be a small scatback type, but he will have great speed to put pressure on opponents' underneath coverage. Besides pass receiving, we may see him running reverses, option, and even passing the ball.

The other main receiver (besides the running backs) will be the tight end, who may be lined up tight against the tackle or flexed out into an intermediate position where he can have some freedom to move into open positions. The tight end may be tall enough to catch short passes over the top of linebackers, or he may be shorter but athletic enough to get separation from linebackers and safeties. The Illini will have much more passing into the middle of the field than in past years. It appears Coach Zook likes to recruit tight ends for their combination of blocking and receiving, but he also likes them because they are often athletic enough to help at several other positions.

Just like on defense, Zook likes his offensive athletes to be fast, faster and fastest. And this includes the quarterback and the offensive line. The quarterback is expected to put pressure on the defense with his running ability. So while he may still be asked to look pass first, he must be able to tuck the pigskin and run for daylight. It is highly unlikely that Coach Zook will recruit a dropback passer who lacks mobility. Look for Illini quarterbacks to gain yardage on the ground as well as through the air.

Because we will be spreading the defense with our offense, a premium must also be placed on recruiting mobile offensive linemen. They will be isolated many times one-on-one with their defenders, so they must be quick enough to contain. This is especially true of the tackles, who will often be converted tight ends because of their athleticism and quick feet.

Centers and guards will be bigger and stronger and will be mauler types who can push the defensive line out of the way when necessary. But the tackles will likely be taller, rangier and have long arms to help push fast defensive ends away from the quarterback. Linemen will also need to be in great shape to run a series of quick plays without a huddle to rest in between.

Coach Zook has an affinity for special teams, so look for some possible trick plays on punts and kickoffs. This is especially true this year since decathlete and punter Steve Weatherford is capable of serving as an offensive threat with his running ability. And look for the recruitment of a few burners who can return punts and kicks.

Based on previous records, look for the Illini to come up with at least one major upset (or at least a major scare) each year. With Coach Zook's great enthusiasm and energy, it is likely the Illini will be sky high for a few special games. Of course, the emotional backlash of such extreme effort can cause an emotional letdown against a lesser opponent. But the Illini have gone several years without a major upset under their belts. This year and future years will likely prove more satisfying in this regard.

Bob Redman, part-time assistant with the Florida football team for eight years, wrote an article for this past year which was entitled: "One Man's Opinion: Why Ron Zook Will Succeed." Having worked with him and observed him both as an assistant and head coach, Redman gave the following reasons why he feels Ron Zook will succeed at Illinois:

1. Ron Zook can recruit successfully in adverse situations.
2. Zook gets much accomplished in his alloted time.
3. Zook can rally his troops to triumph the week after a big defeat and despite adverse weather conditions.
4. Zook can keep his focus in tough times.
5. Zook can adapt within a season.
6. Zook makes himself readily accessible to his recruits and players.
7. Zook can be innovative even under adverse circumstances.
8. Zook can rally his troops even when his own job is on the line.
9. Zook can bite his lip and take the high road under adverse circumstances.
10. Zook can get his staff members to ignore all the negatives (including negative recruiting by competitors) and get their maximum effort in coaching and recruiting.
11. Zook won't blame the referees or bad weather conditions for a loss.
12. Zook can take the heat for his players and not look to pass the buck or complain publicly when his boss puts him in a bad situation.
13. Zook will continue to fight even in impossible situations.
14. Zook is a man of his word.
15. Zook is a player's coach and a man assistants want to follow.

The Illini are a young team, so there will continue to be some growing pains. But Coach Zook and his talented assistants will bring much-needed improvement both to the offense and defense. He may get conservative with a big lead, he may not always provide as much detail for fans to study, and he may occasionally have reversals of fortune that can be both exciting and frustrating.

But there is new optimism at Illinois, and the seeds of a positive future are being planted now. Expect attendance at Memorial Stadium to increase as exciting plays give hope for the future. We hope to see everyone there.

Go Illini!!!

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