Exclusive Q@A: Zook Loves 2008 Class

When he first said it, heads turned and jaws dropped. Could this really be as good a class as Ron Zook ever has signed? The same Ron Zook who was part of more than one class that went on to win national championships? That comment speaks volumes about how excited Zook is about his latest class. In this exclusive Insideillini.com Q@A, the Illini coach talks at length about this latest group.

I've done numerous question and answer sessions with Zook, both now and when he was at Florida. But I don't know that I've ever heard him so enthusiastic. That tells us a lot of what we need to know. During our 40-minute conversation, he told me much more.

INSIDEILLINI: Why do you think this class is so good?

ZOOK: I just don't think we missed any areas. The class has great balance. And there are some really, really, really good players in this class. We got the good players, got the good balance, and didn't have to take seconds. That is when you aren't sure. Didn't happen this year.

We got them committed early, for the most part, and we held them. I'm not saying we didn't miss a few here or there down the stretch, but in the end, this class was as good as any I've been around.

INSIDEILLINI: You already have some guys on campus. Jarrod Fayson, the transfer from Florida, as well as Fred Sykes, Mikel Leshoure, Graham Pocic, Jeff Allen, Reggie Ellis, Whitney Mercillus and Ashante Williams. How important is that?

ZOOK: It's great for those guys, it really is. Mercillus already has gained about 12 or 13 pounds. Already. Fred Sykes has gained weight already. They both need to get bigger. Mikel lost some weight -- he needed to lose a little. Man does he have a great attitude. They all do. This really is important for those guys.

INSIDEILLINI: OK, let's start at the top -- quarterback. You signed one, Jacob Charest, who you liked all along. Tell us about him.

ZOOK: Complete, complete player. Can do it all, which is what we really liked. He is the first guy we targeted at that position and we weren't going to change our opinion, he is that good. Now it's risky, we didn't heavily pursue a good player nearby (John Weinke) because we thought we had our guy and it wouldn't have been fair to bring them both in. But we really like Jacob.

INSIDEILLINI: Running back. You didn't get Jamie Harper but did get two very good ones in Jason Ford and Mikel.

ZOOK: We think we got two very good players. Ford, at first we weren't on him as much, there may have been a few (academic) issues, we wanted to be sure. And he was going to go somewhere else (Iowa). But the more we watched the tape, the more we realized we better get on this guy. I mean really get on him. So we did. And it worked out. You're going to love this guy. And I think everything else (academically) will work out fine.

INSIDEILLINI: Can any of the offensive linemen play this year?

ZOOK: Maybe. Don't be surprised. We do have some good ones. Pocic, he is a special player. Really is. I think he may play this year. But look at all of these guys. Corey Lewis, Tyler Sands, good, good players. Jeff Allen is here right now and learning how to work out. Has a really good attitude. Lou (strength coach Hernandez) keeps telling me how hard he gets after it in the weightroom. More than one have a chance this year.

You and I both know that teams that win national championships do it with the line of scrimmage. I think we're building that.

INSIDEILLINI: Speaking of which, defensively, I would think both Ellis and Liguet would play this year.

ZOOK: Wouldn't surpise me. Both are good players and Reggie is here now, which helps him. Corey is just that big, really athletic guy that is so hard to find. Guys that big that run like that, I mean can really run, you just can't find them. That is why he was so important. Yeah, both of those guys could play.

INSIDEILLINI: What about our back seven guys? As pleased there?

ZOOK: We love all the guys we got. Think we found some guys that can run there, too. But we know that linebacker is a bit of a concern, regarding depth. That is a main priority for next year. Our entire staff knows that.

But there a lot of those guys back there (linebackers and defensive backs) that are athletic, can run, and we'll find a place for them. Justin Staples reminds me of Kevin Hardy. Enough said there. Sanni wants to play safety and will get a look, but probably will play somewhere, there or linebacker. Patrick Nixon is an incredible athlete. So we have some guys coming in that can help.

INSIDEILLINI: Sounds like a bunch of guys from this class could play this year?

ZOOK: When you have a good enough class, that is how it is. Players are good and ready to play. It also means you sign some three-year players, which means you better keep recruiting.

But you know the good part? We will.

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