EXCLUSIVE Q AND A WITH COACH RON ZOOK

Hard to believe that after a whirlwind multi-month tour of recruiting, the bagging of one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the entire country and a day full of signings and smiles and interviews and receptions and a plan to travel to Chicago for another full day of interviews Thursday, Illinois coach Ron Zook actually was going to try and knock off early Wednesday night.

Not so fast. There was one last piece of business, a Q and A to do for his new friends at Insideillini.com.

"You tired?" I asked.

"Fading fast."

"But not too tired to reach out to the peeps. Right?"

Laughs. "Never too tired for that."

With that, we talked about his class, the journey and what lies ahead for Illinois.

INSIDE ILLINI: This is your sixth recruiting class as a head coach, three at Illinois, three at Florida. How does this one compare?

ZOOK: I said last year's class; the freshman here now with Juice and the others, is as fine a class as I've ever been around. Not just because of how good they are, but what good people they are. I really love being around those guys. This year's group has the chance to be just as good from a talent standpoint. Really does. But that group set the bar for how to handle yourself, what kind of people you are. I want this class to learn from that group. Because this can be some class.

INSIDE ILLINI: You had three classes at Florida. Those three classes – seven starters from your first year; eight from your second year and five from your third year – formed 20 of the 22 starters that won the national championship this year. How do your three classes at Illinois compare?

ZOOK: People will say this is crazy, but they can be just as good. That's how good I think these classes have been. Now, we have to do our part in getting better. Coaches, players, everyone. And that doesn't mean you are going to win the whole thing – every team that does every year gets its share of breaks. But that is how strongly I feel about this foundation.

INSIDE ILLINI: How important was it to this class that Regis Benn, one of the nation's top players, shocked everyone and committed to Illinois and then enrolled early?

ZOOK: Critically important. Because Regis not only is a great player, but he showed he could be his own man. He could go away from home, where people maybe didn't think he was going to go. He was willing to take that chance. He had confidence in himself. All the other guys saw that. Guys like Martez and DeAngelo saw it. They saw that you can be your own man. And when a number of guys do that and come together, it can be special. That got the ball rolling.

INSIDE ILLINI: I get the sense you really like this class. Not just that they are good players, but that you like the guys.

ZOOK: I really do. I love a guy like Tez who says to me, Coach, I want you to coach me hard. I want you to make me better. A guy like Regis who is such a leader, such a mature kid. A kid like Big D, who I call ‘OK McCray.' Because every time I would talk to him, I'd say, Big D, this is going to happen, or that. And he'd say, "OK." "OK Coach." "OK." But not just the bigger name guys. All of these guys. They believe in what we are doing. They didn't worry about our record the last two years because they know they are part of the solution. That has them excited.

INSIDE ILLINI: You lost a big time running back in Robert Hughes everyone thought you were going to get. But it seems you never missed a beat landing Daries Hodge who is just as big, and you say even faster, but flew under the radar. What is the story?

ZOOK: My coaches were killing me on this guy. Coach, we got to sign this guy. No matter what. He's one of the best running backs we've seen in a long time. I was reluctant. We had Troy (Pollard) who I really like, had Dufrense and were getting Robert. And Daries had some grade issues. But they kept saying how special he was. So when Robert was gone, I went to see Daries. Met his guidance counselor, a few of his teachers. People at the school. Not just the coach, others. Sometimes with the coach not even around. And everyone loved the guy. Said he was special, that he would work to get academic problems corrected. That he cared that much, even if people didn't realize it. I just got a feeling this guy could really help us. And boy is he something on tape.

INSIDE ILLINI: This one I've got to ask. There have been some unflattering comments, most recently in the New York Times, implying, without any evidence mind you, your recruiting success has been because of unsavory tactics. How do you respond to that?

ZOOK: You know me. Others know me. Other than six years in the NFL, I've been a college football coach since 1978. That means close to 25 years recruiting high school players. And we've had some recruiting success; I think it's fair to say. And never – ever – has anyone questioned our integrity. Nobody ever believed there were any improprieties. Now, all of a sudden, I'm going to cheat? Why on earth would I start now? Haven't we proven we don't need to cheat? Look, we have a pretty good idea of where this is coming from. I think you do, too. I'm not going to say more than that. But if a school is prestigious enough I suppose it can throw some stuff around, even if it is not true, and people will take the bait. The important thing is to work hard and do it within the rules. I know we are doing that. We have my entire career.

INSIDE ILLINI: The other tough question is this: During the most intense recruiting period, some were saying Zook can recruit, but he can't coach. How do you deal with that?

ZOOK: Here is my answer to that. There is a time I should be judged as a coach. Judged on wins and losses. I have no problem with that. But I do think there should be a level playing field in place first. Think about this – I've been a head coach for five years and I've never had the opportunity to coach an offensive or defensive line we have recruited. Never. We all know your linemen usually are upper classmen, give or take a few guys. You almost have to play juniors and seniors there. And everyone says you win games in the trenches. But I've never been able to coach linemen I recruited. I got two and a half years at Florida and just finished my second year at Illinois. Almost every offensive and defensive lineman that has played significant time in that stretch was recruited by another staff. Now I think we have recruited some pretty good linemen – I counted five starting offensive linemen and four starting defensive linemen, plus the top backup defensive lineman, who played pretty well in the national championship game a few weeks ago. And we signed all 10 of them. Believe me, I love the kids we have here at Illinois, whether I recruited them or not. They are all ours. But if you are going to judge me, give me at least a season or two to coach ALL kids they we recruited. I think that is what is fair.

INSIDE ILLINI: Final question. The team did struggle last year and expectations are going to be pretty high this year. How do you get better?

ZOOK: The first thing is get older, which we did. Coach (Dick) Vermeil told me the last thing to come with a young team is consistency. That is what we need. Before last year, our rushing game wasn't good and we were susceptible to the big play. We had to correct that. We did. We led the Big 10 in rushing and allowed very few big plays. Now we have to develop consistency in the passing game. I think everyone knows that. I think Juice will be terrific – if you take away drops and throwaways – he was a lot better statistically than it looks. But that is the big thing – do enough in the off-season to get consistent in the passing game. If that happens, and we improve in other areas which a team with most of its players back and a very good recruiting class should, we have a chance to be better. I don't want to play unfair expectations on a team with so many young guys. But we feel good about this team.

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