Zook and No. 19 Illini Ready to Get Started

Fighting Illini football coach Ron Zook expressed his confidence and enthusiasm about the upcoming season at his first press conference Sunday. There is still a long way to go to get where Zook believes they should be, but the Illini football program is now ready to take the next step in its development.

Zook has a healthy and physically fit team ready for the demands of Camp Rantoul and the upcoming season.

"We're as healthy as we can be. There's no issues health-wise. We're good to go. Talking with Lou (Hernandez), he feels our summer program was as good as he's been around. The attitude is great. Now it's important our guys remember how we got to this point."

Zook is pleased by the recent ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll showing the Illini ranked #19 in the country, but no celebration is in order yet.

"All that means, is that we have made progress. But you're still 19. It's just like with the Big Ten conference, we've made some progress there but we're still not where we need to be. You take it for what it's worth. People will forget about it in a couple weeks."

Competitors tell prospective recruits that Illinois was a one-hit wonder, claiming the Rose Bowl season was a temporary fluke for a mediocre program. Illinois is working hard to disprove that notion.

"I don't think there's any question we have made progress. I think more importantly, just from an attitude standpoint, these guys are excited about proving to people that it's not a one-and-done deal. So we'll just kind of go from there."

The Illini graduated a number of outstanding senior leaders off last year's 9-4 team, so finding strong replacements is essential.

"The best chance we have of being successful is to be a football TEAM. One of the reasons we had a little success and improvement last year is the seniors and young guys kind of came together. This year, more than perhaps any other year we've been here, the junior and senior class is really gonna have to have leadership. We're gonna find out what kind of leaders the senior class is.

"We have the freshman class that is going to be sophomores, and the freshman class coming in here, that are coming here to go to the Rose Bowl. But that's not how it works. The seniors and juniors must make those guys remember what they went through, 2-10 and 2-9. There was an awful lot of work, and an awful lot of heartache. If we don't continue to improve and do those things the coaches ask you to do, we'll be right back in that spot."

In that regard, Coach Zook has been pleased with his upperclassmen.

"One thing I think has happened is the leadership has really taken off this summer. I just feel that being around those guys. They push themselves hard."

Zook and his staff plan to push the team even harder during camp despite a weather forecast for intense heat and humidity.

"Camp is to prepare for the season, not just for the first two or three games of the season but hopefully for 13 games. I want it (to be hot) because it tests you. We're gonna have to push these guys, just like we did in the spring. This is not gonna be an easy camp. I've never been to an easy camp, to be honest with you. It's one where we want to take off right where we left off in the spring."

However, Zook will not make his players hit each other excessively.

"You've got to hit, but where's that line at? We try to be smart. I don't believe in like the old days where you beat them up. It's a long season, a long year. Right, wrong or indifferent, it's my philosophy."

The coaches will teach through repetition.

"The more times you do things, the better you're going to be. Repetition is the key. We talked a lot this summer as a staff about how can we do the same things but make it different.

"Teachers have to do that in the classroom. How do you motivate your guys to learn and stay in it. When you have them on the field, you want them reacting by doing it over and over again, hearing it the same way from the same coach, all those things come together to make it much smoother."

Fortunately, the Illini players are eager to learn and want to win badly.

"Our players are great guys. No one caught onto this last year, but I said that our players let the coaches coach them. Football is a hard game, it's a game where you've got to push them harder than they think they can go. When the players are willing to let the coaches push them where they think they want to go or can go, then you see there's a relationship there.

"I'm not gonna say we're not gonna have issues, everyone has issues. There's gonna be adversity, there's gonna be some things happen. These guys have done everything we have asked them to do ever since we came here. They've all bought into what we're trying to accomplish. Our expectation level as a coaching staff is so much different than when we first got here. Our goal is still to win the Big Ten conference."

Coach Zook isn't willing to predict a championship, but his enthusiasm is contagious. It is clear he has high hopes for the 2008 Illinois football team. As he stated, "Let the journey begin."

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