Illini Ready; Zook Picks a Kicker

The preparation is over. The hype will end soon. All that remains is to play the game. The Arch Rivalry pits two ranked teams in Illinois and Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, with both sides eager to begin the 2008 season on a positive note. The Illini are ready to bring the fight to an outstanding Mizzou team.

Illini head coach Ron Zook was remarkably relaxed this week as he put his charges through their game-planning segment of fall camp. And he was pleased with the progress his team is making.

"We're really satisfied with tonight (Wednesday). Monday and Tuesday were good practices, but you could tell that school had started and they had other things on their plate. Tonight, the focus was there, the intensity was there. I think they realize it's getting close."

Zook always blares loud fan noise at his players on the Thursday before a game to get them used to it. Since the Dome will be filled with a relatively equal number of Illini and Tiger fans all hungry for victory, Zook expects the fan noise on both sides to be intense. So he surprised his players by piping in the noise a day early.

"I was impressed with how they handled it. It shows you we have guys who have done it and been around it before."

Tackle Xavier Fulton was playing his first game on offense last year against Missouri, and he remembers the crowd noise well.

"It got really intense. Once the game started getting closer, I couldn't hear the guard next to me. Martin (O'Donnell) was screaming in my ear, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I say we're confident, not so much relaxed. I can't ever get really relaxed before a game. Getting relaxed is what gets you beat."

Coach Zook has chosen a placekicker.

"Right now, Matt Eller is going to be the kicker. He's won the job fair and square. Like they all know, they have to keep working, keep kicking. It's not necessarily a done deal, so you've got to keep competing. But I had to make a decision, and it's going to be Matt. He will do placements (and maybe kickoffs). (Mike) Cklamovski is going to travel also. He's done it before, so he could also do the kickoffs."

Missouri's offense centers around superstar quarterback Chase Daniel. According to Zook, Daniel is more than a highly efficient passer.

"He's just a winner. He gets it done. He doesn't get flustered, he doesn't get rattled. And he moves a lot better than people think. He can make things happen with his feet."

Co-Defensive Coordinators Curt Mallory and Dan Disch have their hands full preparing their men for Mizzou's high-powered offense and an offensive coordinator who prides himself on fooling opponents through extreme diversity.

"They're obvously a great offense," Mallory states. "The biggest thing is we can't just sit in one thing. We have to fly around and keep the ball in front of us. We can't give them big plays, and that's what they're capable of doing. We've got to be smart and not bite up when they start to run their double moves. We must be disciplined out there.

"They have a lot of weapons, and they do a great job of moving those guys around. They put (Jeremy) Maclin and (Chase) Coffman in different positions, and they give them the ball. If teams try to pressure them and man up, they'll rub you off and pick you. You have to stay on top, not get picked off, and keep the ball in front of you."

Illini defensive end Will Davis remembers Missouri from last year, and he recognizes the difficulty that lies ahead.

"You've got to be ready for everything. We've been watching tape of them against other defenses, and they were just throwing everything at them. We have to prepare for everything, then we have to play our defense and play hard. We just have to play our hearts out. The defense is excited. We're ready to go out and play."

As difficult as it will be for the Illinois defense to defend Missouri's high-powered offense, the Missouri defense is talented and loaded with upperclassmen. Their experience will allow them to complexify their fronts and add deception to their coverages. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley has a big challenge ahead of him.

"That's where our experience on offense will have to lend itself," Locksley said. "Our ability to make in-game adjustments for this first game will be critical. Once we get a feel for what they're doing, we've got an older quarterback, we have an experienced group up front for the most part and a pretty experienced running back.

"You always look at the teams they played in the past, you look at the teams that were similar. You never know what you're gonna get in the first game, just like they don't know what they're gonna get from us. We've also gone out and expanded our package. We've done some things and met with different people to build upon our package. They'll have a few surprises, and we'll have a few ourselves."

Illini quarterback Juice Williams is looking forward to Missouri and the entire season. His improvement since last year may just surprise the Tigers.

"I think I've made some tremendous strides since I played Missouri last year. There were still a lot of things I didn't know. This year, I have a lot of experience, and I practiced a ton with my receivers this summer. And I worked out with Donovan McNabb and some of those guys to be a better quarterback, and it's really helped me."

A number of Illini players have shared their opinion of the game since the beginning of fall practice. They all are eager for the opportunity to play Missouri. They are confident without being cocky.

Michael Hoomanawanui, tight end: "I think we're a lot more confident this year. Last year, we didn't know how we were gonna be. But with the season we had, everyone's a lot more grown up. We know what to expect out of ourselves. I think it will be a great game, one for the ages."

Dave Lindquist, defensive tackle: "It's gonna be a great, exciting game. I'm excited about it because I think both of us have a chip on our shoulders. I think they have a chip on their shoulder because we got to go to the Rose Bowl and they didn't get into the BCS. I think those two things are gonna make for a really good game."

Vontae Davis, cornerback: "I'm looking forward to Missouri, but I'm looking forward to the whole season. I'm really looking forward to how good we can become as a team. I'm looking forward to one game at a time. If it happens good for us, I'll be happy and I'm sure everybody else will too."

Eric Block, offensive lineman: "Missouri is a great team, and it's gonna be a great game. I'm excited. It's gonna tell us a lot about where we are. You don't know where you're at until you play somebody, especially someone as good as Missouri."

Brit Miller, middle linebacker: "Mentally, we're ready for that first game. That's what's charged our offseason workouts. We know we're coming out against a top team, and we're eager to compete against those guys.

"This is a game that could be good for our program. Every game is important, but when you go against a top ten or top five team depending on what poll you're looking at, they have the cover of Sports Illustrated, that's the type of guys you love playing."

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