Zook Q&A: Coach is Ready to Play

The grueling multi-practice days of Camp Rantoul are over, but not before Illinois Coach Ron Zook and his staff had time to learn a great deal more about their team, the individual strengths and weaknesses of their players and where this latest edition of the Illini may be headed. With that in mind, we caught up with the coach Sunday night for this exclusive Insideillini.com Q&A.

Frangie: OK, Camp is behind you. What did you learn? How good is your team?

Zook: We learned a lot. They learned a lot. We learned we've got a chance. Still have a bunch of work to do, but this team is better. The only disappointing thing is we lost some guys – some important guys (to injury). But that's football, we all know that. You just have to put it behind you and go play. And that's what we'll do.

Frangie: Let's start at the top – quarterback. Juice is now a sophomore in his second fall drills – his first as a starter – after completing his first spring. How does he look?

Zook: Good. Very good. Had a very good camp overall. Now we want him to be perfect, Locks (Coach Mike Locksley, offensive coordinator) has done a great job with him, he wants him to be perfect, and he's not going to be perfect. We have to remember that. He has had great, great practices. Now he needs to take that with him to games and scrimmages. That is the next step. He'll have 10 great plays in a row, then mess up on the 11th.

Juice has to understand it is every play, every game, all of the time, to execute. That doesn't mean he won't make a physical mistake. Of course he will. But he needs to know mentally that it has to happen every play. Truth is, he is where a guy in his second year on campus should be. But he has to be better than that. We need him to be better than that."

Frangie: Last year he had marginal receivers at best. Better now?

Zook: Without a doubt. Much better. It hurt losing CJ, he is a winner. But Rejus will be back tomorrow, Joe Morgan has had a good camp and Kyle Hudson has really improved. Those are the first three. And Jacob Willis, what a camp he has had. Really good. He's up next. Then there are some others.

Frangie: Dajuan Warren?

Zook: He has faded a little. I'm surprised. We need him in the mix, we need to get him ready and get him in the mix. We need him. But he's not where I thought he may be.

Frangie: Brian Gamble, the freshman converted to offense, apparently is pretty good.

Zook: He is, he is. Real talented. Just a football player. He's sort of cagy, he knows how to play. He's a football player. Got that knack. Now he's a knucklehead, like all freshmen. But he's going to be a good player for us.

Frangie: It hurt not having Hodge the freshman, but the running game, I would think, is in good hands with Rashard Mendenhall.

Zook: The coaches and I were just talking about him in a meeting. Sometimes we take him for granted. Then we'll see him make a move in practice and remember, this guy really has some great moves. For a guy that big and that fast, really does. Now, he has to keep making improvements we need him to make. To not make the mistakes (fumbles, no doubt) that he has had to get beyond. But we think he could have a big year.

And the young guys, Pollard and Dan (Dufrene) are going to be good. Pollard may be real good. He needs to put on weight and strength, but he doesn't like to eat. Need him to eat.

Frangie: Gotta tell you, I never thought Fulton would make it at left tackle. Never dreamed he would be 293 or that he could be your guy there.

Zook: He doesn't have any choice, he has to be. And you know what, he's been pretty good. He's a competitor. That is something I really like. He really battles in there. Finding him and having him contribute like he's going to, that's pretty good.

Frangie: Defensively, how are things working out with the change in coaching staffs, at least for now?. Mallory and Disch calling plays, Woodford handling special teams.

Zook: All four defensive coaches are doing a really good job. We got everyone wired for the scrimmage just the way we are going to do it; Curt in the box, Disch on the field, them making the call together and Disch signaling it in. I like where we are there. I listened to every call, not just what they called, but were they efficient, did we get it called quickly and signaled in efficiently? Good on all counts. And, I'll tell you, their calls in the scrimmage – they did a good job. Disguised their looks, came at the right times, pulled out of it the right times.

Frangie: Who will start at corner if you don't have Bellamy?

Zook: Today it is Dere (Hicks). Tomorrow it could be Chris (Duvalt). They are that close. Skill sets very similar. Both will play a bunch….But you know who is going to be pretty good – Miami (Thomas). We've watched him close and we like him a lot. Maybe not right away, but he will help us.

Frangie: How are the young linebackers?

Zook: Spinning (with a laugh). Which, honestly, is exactly what you would expect from true freshmen. But both are bright guys, they'll get it. And the more natural it becomes, the more the game slows down, those two are going to be something. Martez is some athlete. And Ian, when he figures it out, when he hits you….Wow.

Frangie: Biggest concerns right now?

Zook: Staying healthy. Getting healthy. I know all coaches say that, but that is it. Particularly with us, now. We're getting Rejus back tomorrow (Monday). That helps. Josh (Brent) it looks like Wednesday. And he is a ball player, now, Josh Brent. Wait ‘til you see him.

Frangie: Will you punt the ball better?

Zook: Definitely. I'll tell you, that is a pretty good competition they've got going. They've all hit some good ones. We need that. Santella probably has had the best camp, but we need to speed him up a bit. Yelton gets it off quicker than either of them. Love the competition. Now I want that decided, I want it decided now. But I don't know why, we don't have to know now. We don't play for two weeks, coaches just get antsy. We'll pick one soon.

Frangie: You tired?

Zook: Maybe a little, but it's a good tired. We are just ready to go play. I think at this point, all coaches, you recruit all year, you go through spring, you know the players are out there on their own in the summer, you go through two-a-days in camp, by now, you just want to go play. I'm ready to go play."

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