Zook, Matha, and Maddox Meet with the Media

Coach Ron Zook and two Illini linemen met with the media today. Zook, Ryan Matha and Matt Maddox fielded questions concerning the Illinois team and Saturday's season opener at Memorial Stadium with Rutgers.

These quotes are courtesy FightingIllini.com & CoachRonZook.com.
Opening Comment:
"First of all I'm excited to get started. Our football team is excited, they are looking forward to it. Our coaching staff is excited and looking forward to it. . We've been asked a bunch of times, "where do you think you are?" But literally until you line up and play, you don't know where you are at. It's just hard to simulate game conditions. We've tried exposing them to everything we could, but there is always something that pops up that you hadn't prepared for. For the most part, I think we've come out of camp very fortunate in terms of injuries."

...on Rutgers:
"Rutgers is a very experienced team. They have 15 returning starters. I know of many of the guys on their team. They have 26 guys from the state of Florida. I know their names. I know how talented and athletic they are. They obviously have their quarterback back who threw for over 3,000 yards last year. They have several key positions back. Defensively, they are very, very good up front. They probably have three of the best defensive ends in their conference. I know that 91 (Ryan Neill) gets the publicity, but the other two are very talented. Defensively, they are very athletic up front. They chase the ball the very well. Greg Schiano has done a great job. I think they are in their fifth or sixth year in the program. Very experienced, well tested, so it's going to be a great challenge for us. I think it will give us an opportunity to see where our program really is."

...on team morale since camp:
"They guys have done a great job. I can't say enough about how hard these guys have worked and have tried to do everything we've asked them to do. We've demanded a lot, we've expected a lot, and they have given us a lot. The week before school started, we started getting into the routine of things - when we are going to meet, when we're going to practice, and all those kind of things. Study tables started this week, so really it has been a smooth transition."

...on Rutger's Coach Robert Jackson:
"I think the biggest thing is that Robert Jackson knows our guys' personality. I think in these first games, even though they are experienced, I'm sure they will have a few nerves. We'll have a lot of nerves."

...on the line up for this weekend:
"As long as we don't have any bumps or bruises, what we have on the depth chart is what we are sticking with. Derrick McPhearson will not play this week. He and Justin Harrison are the two guys that will not play this week. Jim LaBonte is close and get getting closer everyday to returning. He's been pushing it and been taking more on. Derrick is day-to-day. He's improving and making progress. His conditioning is pretty good. He's a freshman, so it's going to take some time to get where he needs to be."

...on the importance of starting the season off strong:
"Obviously it's important that we get off on the right foot, but I'm not going to tell my team that we have to win this game, that it's 'all or nothing.' Obviously we have to do everything in our power to win this game. I told my players when I first saw them that our one concern is the first ball game and the first kickoff. We continue to believe and understand that any football game or any season there is going to be adversity with teams. If you go back and look at some successful teams, those are the teams that are able to handle that adversity, and it is very important that we develop that."

...on Coach Greg Schiano:
"He has been apart of some great programs. He's been at Penn State and they had a great defense with him at Miami. If you look at the jobs he has done and how hard they play, they are on the right track and doing the right things."

...on seeing his offense work live:
"I'm excited and looking forward to it. Everyone on our staff has done a great job and has worked so hard to implement things. We just can't get carried away with ourselves now. We told the players two things: we want to play fast and we don't want them thinking too much, we want them to react. Anytime you have a new system there are a lot of things going through your mind."

...on preparing the new players for game day:
"There is nothing you can really do. If I could buy experience, I'd spend every penny on it. We've tried to put them in every situation we can before the game which is all we can do right now.

...on the youth of his team:
"There aren't a lot of veterans. There are a lot of young faces out there, a lot of young guys playing. Like I said in the beginning, it was going to be important to us as a coaching staff to try and lead them even though we aren't on the field with them. It's important that we try and lead them as a coaching staff. We are going to be all revved up and excited also."

...on this weeks captains:
"Our captains this week are going to be E.B. Halsey, Matt Maddox, James Cooper and Ryan Matha."

...on only having four starting seniors:
"I don't look at that stuff. There is nothing I can do about it. I've started a true freshman at quarterback before. I look at Ed Zaunbrecher and I feel pretty comfortable. At least Tim has been around and he has matured and has a little experience being around that type of environment."

...on confidence in Tim Brasic:
"The thing that Tim has continued to do is to take care of the football. For us to have a chance to win we can't beat ourselves. That is the thing he has done the best job of - he takes care of the football and he gets us in and out of the plays that he needs to get us in and out of. He doesn't force things. He has done the best job of running the offense and taking care of the ball."

...on emotions and butterflies going into the season opener:
"I love to compete and love to play games and I think that is one of the reasons why you get into this profession. I have never played a game that I wasn't excited about or looking forward to.

" ...on how much time Halsey and Thomas will be on the field together:
"They will be on the field together at the same time. How much depends on how the game unfolds."

...on Halsey's leadership:
"He is a competitor. All you have to do is watch him practice. He practices hard. He loves to play the game and he loves the University of Illinois. He is a fun guy to be around."

...on their (Zook and Halsey) relationship:
"I had to have a few conversations with him so I got to know him well. You can usually tell when guys tell you things you want to hear and when they are sincere. We made a pact right then and there and he stood by it and I've stood by it. I told the whole football team when I got here that we are all starting with a clean slate and will go from there."

...on if Halsey has asked for more touches:
"One of the great things about not only E.B. but this whole football team is that they are unselfish. For us to be a successful team we have to be an unselfish team. Obviously he is excited because he knows a lot of the Rutgers players. When Florida plays Florida State or when Florida plays Miami those guys have played against or with each other. It raises the tensions of the game and the competition of the game. He knows a lot of those guys so it will be that much more exciting from him."

...on multiple starters at some positions on the depth chart:
"I have said this before, you want guys that we can really count on to win. They need to think of themselves as starters. It depends on what formation we use to determine who starts. I don't want guys to get a second team mentality. I told the guys in our meeting last night that we need guys that are ready to give up energy. If they are not playing we need them screaming and hollering and giving us energy. Everybody has a role and everyone is important."

...on how many practices OL Jim LaBonte has been in:
"He actually hasn't been out there and in contact. We have to be very careful with him. He has only done individual and one on one type stuff."

...on how many freshman he plans to play:
"We have talked about a few guys who will have a good chance to play as freshman. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will play on Saturday. Sometimes a guy may not be ready on Saturday but he may be ready in four weeks. If they can help the team then usually they are all for it. I don't like to make a decision right away to redshirt someone.

...on Justin Harrison's prognoses in the next few weeks:
"It is strictly how fast he can come back. It up to Justin but I don't think we have to make a decision right now. I know this, he is tougher then heck. He is a tough kid. We would all like to have him back but on the same token he does have a redshirt year if we need to use it. I'm not saying we will or we won't, it is too early. The positive thing is we know what it is now and hopefully we can take care of it."

...on how much of a test the secondary will get against Rutgers:
"They will get tested. I think it is important that we try and stay in situations that we feel comfortable in. I think it is important that we do things that we have been doing well. There will be a wrinkle here and a wrinkle there but not a lot. I think it's important to put the guys out there and let them do things that they have been doing for at least 20 practices.

...on anything different between Florida and Illinois' special teams:
"Hopefully it won't be a lot different. When you have a lot of athletic guys you have a chance to be a pretty good special teams unit. These guys that cover and make things happen are athletic and can run. I think we have pretty good special teams."

...on Rutgers QB Ryan Hart:
"He is a leader. I remember reading something about him a few weeks ago about a quarterback battle there. I wish we could have a quarterback throw for 3,000 yards and a have a battle. He is impressive. I watched their spring game and I could tell he is a poised guy and looks good. He has been there and done that."

...on the team's attitude toward Saturday's game:
"It's fun to finally strap up for some games. We've had a lot of practices and a lot of time this spring and summer to get adjusted to the new offense. We've still got some things to work on this week and adjust to Rutgers a little bit better, but we're all really excited to get ready to play Rutgers."

...on the tempo Illinois will play with:
"We can use that our advantage. We have the no huddle. We're going to be running plays fast. We're going to be on the line and ready to go. Just from seeing in practice and scrimmages what it does to our defense, it's only going to magnify more in a game. Our defensive guys get really tired in practice because it's so up-tempo and we're running after the ball."

...on the team's outlook:
"Right now I see that we're really excited to play Rutgers. We've been practicing for almost a month and it gets kind of tiring beating up on the same person everyday. Now we've got a chance to beat up on other people."

...on the offensive strategy:
"We have a lot of playmakers on offense, from the quarterback to the running backs. Our margin of error is 12 percent. That's something that coach Locksley is pressing on us. He said if we keep it under 12 percent, and he hasn't been to too many games where if the margin of error is under 12 percent, that we're going to lose. With the playmakers we have, if we get them the ball and don't hurt ourselves with turnovers, sacks or penalties then we'll be fine."

...on what Illinois can learn from Saturday's game:
"The scrimmages have shown us where we measure up and where we need to improve. But that's playing against each other. Now playing a different opponent we can see where we are. But we can't just let one game make or break our season. We have an 11-game schedule and we want to go out there and win every single play. If we win every single play, it will translate to wins."

...on what factors in to the margin of error:
"It's a collection of five things - penalties, missed assignments, sacks, turnovers and something else."

...on how Rutgers has improved its program:
"They're recruiting a lot more nationally now. They've got a lot more guys from Florida now. They're getting the guys who used to leave the state of New Jersey. When I was getting recruited, Coach Schiano was there my junior and senior year, and it was much more high-intensity recruiting compared to the old coaching staff. So from a recruiting standpoint they're doing much better. But I wanted to play for Illinois in the Orange and Blue."

On facing some familiar players against Rutgers:
"I played with a lot of these guys in the all-star game in high school. A lot of these guys were in school near mine. I know E.B.'s played with some of these guys and it's going to be fun."

...on his switch from guard to center:
"I look at every single game the same way. Now I just have more responsibilities than I had in the past and I can accept that as the older guy on the line. I had a great mentor in duke and he taught me a lot. I'm trying to focus on the things he taught me as well as the things Coach Warriner is teaching me."

...on the pressure on starting quarterback Tim Brasic:
"The offensive line will have to do a great job protecting him so he doesn't get rattled in his first start in a big game. We have to keep him clean. We can't let people get shots on him. Like Coach Locksley's been telling us, the quarterback doesn't have to go out and make unbelievable plays, he just has to get the ball in the hands of the playmakers and not hurt the offense. I think Tim will be comfortable in that role and he'll be able to blossom into an even better quarterback than we need him to be right now."

...on his impressions of Rutgers from film study:
"Rutgers plays very intense. They play hard to the whistle every single play. They attack defensively speaking. That's something Coach Zook has been trying to teach us to do - play with the same kind of intensity that our opponents play with. Rutgers plays with a lot of intensity, they play up-tempo. And they keep going to the whistle."

...on getting the young players to play like seniors:
"Sure we don't have many senior starters, but a lot of the guys except the redshirt freshmen played last year. To be honest with you, it only takes about one or two games to get that game experience. The other guys might be young on paper but they've played a lot of football games."

...on the awareness of outsiders judging the team after the Week One performance:
"I'm sure that is going to happen but we are playing a season and not just one game. Win or lose we still have 10 or 11 games left on the schedule. No matter what the outcome is we still have a lot of season left."

...on the motivation to impress people in the first game:
"Opening up at home we want to go out and show our fans that we are a different team and a team that is going to be competitive and win games wins."

...on the difference in the defensive unit:
"The defense is more attacking than it has been in the past. Coach (Tom) Simms and Coach (Joe) Cullen have really emphasized a pass-rushing mentality, but we also know we have to stop the run obviously before we can stop the pass. Out back (defensive secondary) the guys are a lot faster than they've been in the past. The linebacking corps is a lot faster than it has been in years past."

...on the `bend but don't break' attitude last year:
"It didn't start off that way but once the wheels started falling off it was tough and that's kind of what happened last year. Then you have to scramble to fix problems and can't attack as much because you don't want to give up the big play. It kind of plays into a `bend but don't break' situation and we have to stay away from that."

...on feeling more confident in this season's defense than last:
"Personally I think so, especially the defensive line play. The techniques that Coach Simms who has played in the NFL for eight years and Coach Cullen who coached in the Big Ten and SEC - the knowledge that they have brought has really helped us up front."

...on his physical status with his rehabilitated knee:
"I hurt my knee my red-shirt freshman year. I probably should not have played my red-shirt sophomore year but I did out of necessity trying to help the team out the best I could. Last year I still had a couple problems with it but I played. This year is the first year I've been able to do all the conditioning during the summertime and I am in the best shape cardiovascularly since I've been here. I've done things in the weight room that I've never been able to do.

...on being really 300 pounds:
"I started off this summer losing about 20 pounds so I could get into the cardiovascular shape I needed to be in and then I put it back on later in the summer. I'm around 295, 300 right now."

...on Rutgers offense:
"Their offense is a lot like will see in the Big Ten. They run a lot of power, they have a great tailback and a great tight end. They run a lot of slide protection, which is what we'll see all year. It will be a good challenge and will get us ready for the rest of the Big Ten conference."

...on whether Rutgers' running back, Brian Leonard, plays tail or fullback:
"He lines up at the fullback position, and in split backs he lines up at either fullback or tailback position. He gets a lot of carries and he can catch the ball. He is probably one of the better running backs we'll see all year. He's a guy that will probably be an early draft pick, he is a good football player."

...on evaluating Illinois' two starting defensive ends:
"Xavier (Fulton) got considerable playing time last year and got his feet wet, Derek (Walker) redshirted. They are probably the two best athletes that we've had at the corners since I got here including 2001. They are the type of guys that when quarterbacks line up and see them they might put a little fear in them. They can get to the passer - they are very athletic. This year and down the road they are going to be a really good pair of defensive ends."

...on how good this team can be:
"I was asking myself that same question back in camp. I think this team can be a lot better than most people think. I think we can have the best defense that we've had since I've been here, including 2001. We are a lot more athletic but it really comes down to doing it on the field. Defenses are not going to be ready for our offense. After practicing against them for the past three weeks, everything they do is really tough on the defense. It also comes down to our three great running backs - E.B. (Halsey), Jason Davis and Pierre (Thomas) and obviously Rashard (Mendenhall) who will fit in someplace. We have a nice receiving corps with DaJuan Warren leading the way and Kendrick Jones being a senior. Then there is the X-Factor in Derrick McPhearson. When he gets back he will be the guy that Illinois fans will be raving about for the next four years. Melvin Bryant is a big pass-catching tight end who will have a good year. Tim Brasic has played in this offense basically for four years in high school and set all kinds of records. He is a smart player and is not going to make a lot of mistakes."

...on the pace of the no huddle:
"The pace that we move at in practice is so much faster than anything that you'll see in a game. The refs are going to have to slow those guys down. It's really going to be tough when they get in a hurry-up tempo. Even the regular tempo is quick and that's one thing that Coach Zook and Coach Locksley really emphasize. Coach Zook was a defensive coordinator in the NFL and has always been a defensive guy. He likes to say that he wants this offense to be run with the stuff that drives him crazy. It really does drive you crazy. When we are out there practicing it's a pain to deal with."

These quotes are courtesy FightingIllini.com & CoachRonZook.com.

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