Exclusive Q&A: Ron Zook Opens Up

It may have been the most important 15 days of the Ron Zook Era at Illinois. After having his first spring practice with the likes of Juice Williams, Rejus Benn, Vontae Davis, Travon Bellamy and others in attendance, the coach looked back at what got accomplished in an exclusive interview.

Ron Zook knew this spring would be important. He knew his team would be better, that it has to be. But he came away feeling even better about the Illini than he expected. And he can't wait to get to fall practice.

He visited exclusively with me Sunday night to discuss the state of the team.

Question: What were the most pleasant surprises this spring for you?

Zook : Boy, there were a lot. I think Xavier Fulton's attitude, he worked so hard, that energized a lot of guys on offense. And Martin O'Donnell, what a leader he is becoming. That is so important. He really, really stepped up as a leader. I can't say I was surprised at the way Rejus played, we expected that. Defensively, our guys have a chance. I saw that. Antonio Steele really has a knack, had a great spring. I told him, now is your time. He can really run, really find the ball. Look, we've got a long way to go, I know that. But seeing our guys this spring, we have a chance. We really have a chance. That is what was really exciting.

Question: Some in the media and even the fan base were worried about Juice, at least until the spring game. Your thoughts?

Zook: Juice will be fine. He is 19 years old. This is his first spring practice here. He learned so much last year. And Locks has done such a good job with him this year, he is a different player. Now he has to keep improving. He will be better this year than last year and better next year than this year. But I am not worried about him, I can assure you of that. He had to take a step this spring, to make a move. Didn't have to be perfect, but had to take a step. He did that.

Question: If something happens to Juice, how ready is Eddie McGee?

Zook: The biggest concern is that he just hasn't played. He will be fine. I believe that. But he hasn't played. And it's not like we play a schedule where there are many opportunities for him to go play. That is the concern.

Question: Does he have good enough receivers?

Zook: We need more playmakers. We've got some, obviously, we have to find more. They may be on our roster, they sure are going to get a chance to show that. We saw what Rejus can do. Now we need some more. But I saw improvement there, too. Jeff Cumberland is going to be very good. Outside, (Marques) Wilkins had a good spring, just was too inconsistent. At times very good. Joe Morgan had the ankle at the end, that was a shame. He is going to be very good – big, fast, just needs to play. CJ is going to play. And we didn't get to see Kyle much, but we know what he can do. So, yeah, we will be better there. Just need to keep improving. And gotta catch the ball. We have to catch the ball.

Question: It looked to me like your offensive line struggled in the spring game. Are you concerned about that group?

Zook: Concerned maybe that our depth is young. Our young guys, who will spell the older guys some, haven't played much. So when an older guy has to come out, we put in a guy that has barely played. That is a concern. But that is where college football is – your young players are the top backups. Remember, now, we didn't have Akim in the spring game. Xavier did great, but we need Akim back. That will be good competition there. That is what we want – competition.

Question: You told me you think this group can be very special on defense. Still feel that way?

Zook: Without a doubt. The problem is we can't be inconsistent like we were last year. Sometimes last year our defense was great. Then there were games like Indiana or Wisconsin or Purdue. That can't happen. Last year we were playing a true freshman quarterback – we needed our defense to be good every time out, not some of the time. Our defense has got to be our strength – period. That is where we have our experience. We have to play well every game. I'd be very disappointed if we do not. And I think we will.

Question: Any concerns about the defense?

Zook: I'm worried about depth inside – depth at tackle. Chris Norwell is as good as any tackle in the Big Ten. In fact, our ends, and our depth at end, is as good as any team in the Big Ten. I worry about depth at tackle. Linny (David Linquist) will be fine with Chris. But after that we're thin. We have four good young players coming in as true freshmen and are really going to have to help us there. You hate to have to count on young players, but you'd rather be counting on them to be backups and not starters. And that is where we are. We are counting on a few of them at that spot.

Question: Looks like your secondary may be special. Chris Duvalt seems to be a real find and he won't start.

Zook: Let me tell you about Chris. I went in there tonight and he was in watching tape. I sort of kidded him, Yeah, I know you're watching your big play for a touchdown, but remember, all you had to beat was the quarterback. He said, Coach, that's not the play I'm watching. I'm watching the interception I dropped. I don't know how I dropped it. I want to see what happened. That's Chris Duvalt.

Question: Bet he won't drop many.

Zook: You know why he dropped it? Here is why, and I told him this – he didn't expect to be there. Didn't expect to have the ball in his hands. The great corners, they have that swagger, they expect to pick off passes and make plays. They envision it. Fundamentally, he did everything correct on that play. But he didn't believe he would be there to make that play. That was the difference the next time.

We do some things with technique and coverage that will put players in position to intercept passes. Keiwan Ratliff at Florida really took advantage of it. These guys will, too.

Question: You talked about some of your prized recruits – Rejus on offense, all of the defensive tackles you're going to need on defense. What about Martez Wilson? How important will he be this year?

Zook: Very important. He's mad at me now because he wants so badly to be playing right now that he wants me to keep sending him football stuff – playbooks, tapes, assignments. I'm telling him enjoy your final days of high school. Enjoy your life. He'll have plenty of time for this. He was here the other day and he's into it. And what a specimen – called me after he ran 10.88 in the 100 meters the other day. And he's 240 pounds. That is flying.

I told Simeon (Rice), we don't have many that come in with the tools you came in with, but he may be one. Simeon was impressed. He asked me who he is like. I told him that I had Jevon Kearse at Florida and that ‘Tez is ahead of where Jevon was. Doesn't mean he will turn out like him, but he is ahead.

Question: Where will you play him?

Zook: Linebacker. Probably the weakside position that Steele plays now. That is where I see him starting out.

Question: Will you find much time for him?

Zook: Definitely. We really need him to play and to play a lot this year. But I know where you're going with this – we have very good starting linebackers. J. will pick up right where he left off when he comes back, Steele had that great spring and Brit Miller got better and he was already pretty good. But ‘Tez will be in the mix.

Question: What is next for these guys?

Zook: Just left a team meeting. I told them that the phase we're getting ready to begin, the fourth phase (the other three are the season, the conditioning period between the season and spring, and spring) is the longest and most grueling. The off-season program. They've got to stay in shape. They've got to get in better shape. I told them how proud I am of them – we really pushed them this spring and they responded.

With that, I also told them that we were going to keep pushing them. That this is not going to stop. That it is our job to make them as good as they can be. And you know what kind of kids we have? Everyone of them were looking me right in the eye. You know sometimes when you're addressing a crowd and some are listening and some are not. You don't always have ‘em. These guys, they care so much, they were into it. Really into it. They are excited."

Question: What is next for you?

Zook: (With a laugh) Recruiting. What else? Seeing some local kids, then down to St. Louis tomorrow, covering the region, in Chicago late in the week. Recruit, recruit, recruit. We've got some good players. We need more.

Question: Finally, what is next for the program?

Zook: We have to win. Period. You know what? We can talk about renovations and recruiting and how we are turning the corner and the big crowd at the spring game and former players and the buzz and how everyone is excited all we want. And that stuff is great. Really great.

But now we have to win. No excuses. Not now. We have to win. If someone asked me the state of the program – I mean the real state of the program, I can answer it in one sentence: Now we have to win.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories