Zook Prepares Illini For New Challenges

Coach Ron Zook held a press conference Tuesday, heralding the start of spring practice for the Fighting Illini football team. The coaches, players and fans are all excited to see if a Rose Bowl team can build on its recent success and create a sustainable program that can be nationally prominent for years to come.

Many prognosticators and dubious competitors are predicting a return to mediocrity for the Illini in 2008, and Coach Zook is using that as motivation for his charges.

"It's important for everyone on our football team to understand that everyone is predicting the University of Illinois football team will come back down to earth this year. It was a fluke, a hit-and-miss. Our coaching staff takes that as a challenge. That is what is so important that our players understand."

Indeed, the University of Illinois has witnessed first hand how difficult it is for a team to achieve continual success. The 1952, 1963, and 1983 Rose Bowl teams, as well as the 2001 Sugar Bowl team all failed to maintain their previous win totals in their following years. Coach Zook is aware of the pitfalls and is doing everything in his power to prevent them.

"I told one of my buddies last week, we've been trying to figure out a way to get back to the Rose Bowl and not get our butts kicked. As a coach, that's the last thing in your mind. You're only as good as your last game. While tomorrow starts the football part of 2008, we started the day after we got back from the Rose Bowl.

"I told the team it was imperative we remember how we got there. One of the things you worry about with a young team is that things don't just happen. The older guys who went through those first two years think differently, but the young guys didn't. You want to make sure they remember what we had to go through to get there."

Coach Zook preaches the importance of continued improvement.

"We're happy with a lot of things that happened last year. But on the same token, we have a long, long way to go. You can say you've turned the corner when your team wins consistently, when you do it year in and year out. Until you get to that point, in my mind we're still rebuilding. So we're going to continue to turn the wick up on everything we do, whether it be recruiting, coaching or schematics, or putting the right players in the right positions."

The players have just completed grueling 6:00am winter conditioning sessions designed to improve their strength, stamina, flexibility and quickness. Strength & Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez has been in charge of the physical aspects, and Coach Zook and his staff have worked diligently to prevent complacency. According to Zook, the hard work is paying off.

"I can honestly say I have never been around one (winter conditioning) better. We need to maintain and continue to improve everything we've accomplished to this point. Everything that happened last season was an accumulation of everything that's happened since the first day we got here. It was the suffering we went through the previous two years, the ups and downs and the things that weren't quite so much fun that enabled us to have the success we had last year.

"The way they've worked in the offseason, the way they've worked in the 6:00am conditioning, I don't think we could ask for anything more. I really believe that how you are off the field is how you're going to be on the field. Everyone has a breaking point. The thing we're trying to do is raise that breaking point higher and higher to where it's harder and harder to give in. Like I told our coaching staff, we're a better team right now that we were a year ago. Now that doesn't mean anything. We're not there by any stretch of the imagination. But we've made progress."

Not everything is rosy at this point. Defensive end Jerry Brown, wide receiver Brian Gamble, offensive lineman Mark Jackson, offensive lineman Brandon Jordan and cornerback Marcus "Miami" Thomas will not participate in spring drills as they work on their academics. All are still eligible for the fall at this time, but Coach Zook insists that academics take priority over athletics, and he doesn't want to spend time training anyone who might not be available in the fall. All five can return to good graces with improved work in the classroom.

Receiver Arrelious "Regus" Benn and running back Troy Pollard will be withheld from spring practices as they continue their recovery from offseason surgery. Benn wants to go, but Coach Zook is worried he will reinjure himself diving for a ball or otherwise going full out when he should be more careful. Pollard knows the offense and will be involved with practices, but he will still need 5-6 more weeks to be cleared for all physical activity.

In addition, Defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray and Travon Bellamy will miss part or all of the hitting in drills as they recuperate from injuries. McCray had his knee scoped a couple weeks ago, the same one he injured last year. He ran well yesterday, so he is expected to recover quickly enough to engage in full contact prior to the end of the spring. But this will set his progress back temporarily.

Travon Bellamy had surgery on both his shoulders since last fall, but he will likely be able to participate in all spring drills except hitting, much like Justin Sanders did last spring. He is working hard to get himself back to full strength, and Zook is impressed.

"He stayed here over spring break and really worked hard. Travon Bellamy will work both at cornerback and safety and be a cross of both. We will work him at safety. The thing I love about that is, if you get into any situations where you're playing normal personnel, now you've got a safety who you can walk down and play him like a corner if you're playing man coverage. It can be a big benefit for us."

Kyle Hudson is splitting time between football and baseball again this spring, but he has also impressed Zook with his work ethic.

"We'll do with Kyle (Hudson) what we did last year. I think we said he would miss six practices. I told Kyle he didn't have to go through the 6:00am practices, but I told him that last year. He went through them. He missed one or maybe two. It makes me feel good that it is important to Kyle to continue to improve. This is his last year, and he could have taken the easy way out. But he didn't."

Coach Zook is also excited about the eight newcomers who are in their first semester on campus. Offensive linemen Graham Pocic and Jeff Allen, receivers Fred Sykes and Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive end Whitney Mercilus, defensive tackle Reggie Ellis, and defensive back Ashante Williams have all impressed during winter conditioning and will now have a chance to show Zook and staff what they can do on the field.

Spring is a time for players to make improvements and solidify their positions as Illini football team looks to continue its climb to national prominence.

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