Exclusive Zook Q@A: We're A Better Team Now

It was three weeks ago or so, well after signing day and well before spring practice, when Ron Zook got a call from his media buddy in Florida. The buddy, who just happened to be in Pasadena Jan. 1, wanted to know what a coach that just went to the Rose Bowl does with his free time. Replied Zook: "Try to figure out how to get back to the Rose Bowl and not get his *** kicked."

And so starts the 2008 season for the Illini with the beginning of spring practice Wednesday afternoon. It is 15 practices that set the tone for what all in the Illini nation hope will be a followup season to one which forever laid the foundation for Illinois under Ron Zook.

But before taking to the field, Zook talked again with his media pal about spring practice, the 2008 season, and other topics in this exclusive Insideillini.com Q @ A.

INSIDEILLINI: How is this off-season, including spring practice, different now that you had the season you had?

ZOOK: To tell you the truth, the key is to keep it from being different. It can't be. I'm proud of our players and happy for them that we had a good year. But for the last three months, everyone has been telling them how good they are, how great they did.

It's my job to make sure that doesn't make us complacent. Can't let that happen. We can't forget how much hard work got us there. And we can't forget we've got a ways to go -- remember, we lost that game. Got beat pretty good. We have to work harder than ever. That is really important.

INSIDEILLINI: Given that, you've been around these guys, are they complacent?

ZOOK: You know what, our 6 a.m.'s were the best I've ever seen. More competitive than ever, we're tougher than ever. There is more fight. The good thing is these players understand the bar is raised. That is a very good thing.

INSIDEILLINI: What are the most important things you have to get done this spring?

ZOOK: You know the first thing that comes to mind? Leadership. We've got to find our leaders. We lost a great leader in J. (Leman), but we lost some other leaders as well. Now on offense, our leadership will be better because we will be older.

But on defense, we need some leaders to step up. We need Brit Miller, he is the guy that can be that. Derek Walker is a terrific player, but he is a quiet guy. Same with David Linquist. Will Davis, quiet. Our seniors are not vocal guys. But someone needs to be that. Vontae needs to be more vocal, even though that's not really his thing either. Leadership is a big key.

INSIDEILLINI: You lost, maybe, the best running back in the country. Worried about running back?

ZOOK: I'm really not. Dufrene is going to be a really good player and Mikel (LeShoure) is more ready, far more ready, than I thought he would be. He has trimmed some weight and looks great. About eight percent body fat, 238 pounds, runs hard, cuts. I like him a lot.

Then in the fall Jason Ford gets here and Troy (Pollard) will be back and we'll have our numbers.

INSIDEILLINI: Speaking of Pollard, how is his knee. What other injuries are you worried about?

ZOOK: By fall, we'll be healthy and we'll be fine. Right now, Troy can't go because of the knee. Big D (DeAngelo McCray) had the knee scoped again and won't go full speed at first. Travon (Bellamy) will be like Justin Sanders last year -- he will practice in the spring, just no contact. We'll be fine.

INSIDEILLINI: Biggest areas of improvement needed?

ZOOK: Every area needs to improve, but that is every year, everywhere. With us, I think you know the areas. We have to improve our passing game. We all know that. That is an area that has to get better. As I said earlier, we have to find some leaders. We have to find some depth. Those things, mainly.

INSIDEILLINI: I know this is more of a question for the fall, but I'll ask it now anyway -- many are expecting Illinois to come back down to earth, so to speak. How do you feel about that?

ZOOK: We've already talked to our team about that. Everyone will be saying last year was a fluke, they'll be back down to earth this year, etc. That's what happens when a team that hasn't been winning, wins. We know that. And it's our job to prove them wrong, to prove that we will be better than last year, not worse.

INSIDEILLINI: How is Juice as he begins his second ever spring practice?

ZOOK: Just as he should be -- confident, ready and excited.

INSIDEILLINI: And you?

ZOOK: (Laughing) Are you kidding? I'm ready to get started right now, just like all coaches. We want to go coach.

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