Ongoing Evaulations Aim To Prevent Repeat

After a couple days of excruciating self-evaluation, Illinois head football coach met the media to discuss why his team failed to meet its high expectations for the season. As usual, he was forthright and honest. He and his staff will continue an evaluation of the entire program to correct mistakes and plan for a positive future.

Illinois coach Ron Zook made an opening statement in his press conference before opening it up to questions.

"First of all, we didn't meet your expectations, and we didn't meet our expectations. Everybody wants an answer. I want an answer. My coaches and I are gonna continue to dive into it the next few weeks to figure out what happened.

"After a season, you go back and evaluate everything. I think it's very important after a season where you don't meet expectations. The importance becomes a little bit greater and more intense after this season, and that's what we're gonna do. It's been a tough year. I apologize for being a little testy sometimes. That's usually not how I am.

"The first thing I did this morning at 6:00am was look at this last year's recruiting class. And it made me feel good. We signed 29 guys, and I got the staff's views of what they thought about them. It's a good feeling. Obviously, we've got a ways to go. We have some things we have to get taken care of. But there's no doubt in my mind the program's in great shape, and we're gonna get things fixed.

"I'm gonna start with me. I have to evaluate myself and be objective. After the Missouri game, I said perhaps I was more worried about keeping everybody in the game than being the physical team we need to be. Everybody's got to be evaluated. I don't want to do things when I'm emotional or upset. I assure you we are gonna look at every phase (including the coaching staff). From the weight room to the training room.

"We underachieved, which is maybe the worst thing you can ever say to a football coach. That's my responsibility. But maybe we overachieved last year. Maybe we got a few breaks last year that we didn't get this year. It all evens out. I think where we are and where we're going, there's no question in my mind that we'll get there."

Question: What do you think about quarterback Juice Williams' turnover problems this year?

Zook: "I know this about Juice. There were 16 interceptions, but by the way we evaluate it, 8 of them were not his fault. Obviously, the quarterback gets blamed for those. But whether it be tips or calls or whatever, we'd feel much better if we only had 8 of those interceptions.

"We had 16, so we have to ask what we are gonna do to get corrected the ones that were his fault. Unfortunately, a quarterback will throw an interception here or there. It's part of the game, but it doesn't mean you accept it."

Q: Please discuss the injury situation.

Zook: "Donsay (Hardeman) is gonna have (cervical disc) surgery on Friday. Dr. Harms feels comfortable he's gonna have a full recovery. He'll miss spring, but he'll be here going through all the rehab. There's no way of knowing when the injury occurred. He could have done it before he got here. Iowa was the first game it really bothered him. And then it came back again after the Ohio State game.

"Sirod (Williams, knee surgery) is doing well, Miami (Thomas, knee surgery) is doing well. We feel very fortunate with the injuries. We've been fortunate with injuries since we've been here. I think a little of that is the way we practice, but on the same token maybe that's caught up with us a little bit.

"I believe (Miami's shoulder surgery) will be right at the end of finals. He'll miss the spring also. We didn't want to do the surgery earlier because first of all we wanted to get the knee back where it's in pretty good shape. He couldn't move around on crutches with a shoulder surgery. His rehab of his knee is coming along very well."

Q: Do you expect defensive back Pat Nixon to be back for second semester after coming up short with the NCAA Clearinghouse?

Zook: "Pat Nixon has some work to do. He's in the process of doing it right now. We're kind of waiting on some test scores with him. If he gets that done, then hopefully he'll be back here in January.

"Pat Nixon, Ashante Williams, someone who is a very talented young man, all those guys we missed. The more guys you have, the better you're gonna be. Sirod was a guy with experience, a guy who plays in the middle and has senior leadership. Injuries are part of the game. I think we've probably been as fortunate as anybody."

Q: Chris (CJ) James had knee surgery last year but didn't play much this year. How would you describe his progress?

Zook: "You're supposed to come back off a knee surgery in 6-8 months, but everybody's different. I look for CJ to be a much more productive player for us next year. CJ understands his role and will be very productive in his role next year."

Q: You are losing some linebackers to graduation. Who do you expect to replace middle (MIKE) linebacker Brit Miller and the others?

Zook: "I don't know exactly who's gonna be the MIKE backer. I feel good about our young linebackers. We're inexperienced a little bit, some guys are gonna have to step up. But I feel very good about the way they play.

"Those guys have really done a great job. A lot of times, guys when they redshirt just take the year off, but these guys studied the game. It showed up a little bit in our scrimmage on Thursday. It was kind of a fun thing to do. It's gonna take a lot of work on their part, but I feel good about where we are.

"You've got Justin (Staples), you've got Evan (Frierson), Nate (Palmer), Ian Thomas who's been coming along, Martez (Wilson) who has continually improved. We all want Martez to play like he looks and like he's capable of playing, and I think he's going to continue to get better.

"Dustin Jefferson showed signs and really did well on the special teams. Those guys are getting better and making progress. Russell Ellington played an awful lot of football for us, and that's gonna help him. He's probably a lot further along than any of them. I think we have some good young talent there.

"As many offenses as you get that are spread out, the MIKE backer is not like back in the day when you had Dick Butkus in the middle. Now, the MIKE backer has to be more like a WILL backer in some instances depending on the personnel.

"Everybody wants to know who's in the middle, but I don't put as much in that. To me, when you talk about the MIKE linebacker, it's making sure everybody gets the call and gets lined up. Whoever is best at that will probably be our guy there."

Q: Are there some junior college linebackers you are looking at who could come in for the second semester and help out?

Zook: "Yeah, there are. That's something we're looking into, a guy with experience, same with the offensive line."

Q: What do you think Eddie McGee's role will be next season?

Zook: "I don't know for sure. Eddie McGee is probably a guy who needs to be on the field in some role. I don't know exactly what that is. I'm not gonna say we'll not have a quarterback race, or we're gonna have a two quarterback system. Those are all things we will look at and talk about as we get into evaluating personnel.

"But Eddie is a competitor, and he probably needs to be on the field as much as we can get him on the field. I think Jacob Charest is coming along. He has a chance to be a very good quarterback. Perhaps you can put Eddie into several roles. You're gonna see him on the field."

Q: You will need to replace some veterans on the offensive line. How do you see that taking shape?

Zook: "There's a chance there might be some movement on the offensive line. If we lined up and played right now, we'd have five guys that have all played and have experience. Jon Asamoah is the first name we talked about at center. He could be the center, he's a smart guy. He can make the calls we need to make. That's one possibility.

"(freshman) Graham Pocic is gonna be a great player for us. Not only has he got the God-given ability, but it's important to him to be good. We really feel like he has a chance to be a great player.

"About the fourth or fifth game, we made the decision to get Jack Cornell ready (rather than Pocic). Graham traveled to every game, but we held him. It's not because we don't think he's gonna be a great player. I think right now Graham will probably end up at guard."

Q: Mike Locksley has interviewed for the Clemson job and might have a chance at some others. How do you see that evolving?

Zook: "My relationship with Locks is very close. I want what's best for him. I was the same way, I wanted to be a head football coach. He's not gonna just take a job to take a job. He knows where we've gone and where we have a chance to go. He feels good about what's coming back. Timing's never right. It never works out the way you want it to work out. You just have to take it in stride.

"It speaks highly of what we've accomplished the last four years. And the job he's done."

Q: Will you be a more veteran team next year, or will you need to keep plugging in youngsters?

Zook: "We are going to be older next year and more experienced. In the locker room before the Ohio State game, I asked everyone to stand up who wasn't in that locker room last year. When they all stood up, it kind of took me back a little bit. I told the guys sitting down, 'that's your job between now and Saturday to make sure these guys understand what it's gonna take to get the feeling you had last year.'

"We're gonna be more of a veteran and experienced team. We're still gonna be a young team, but we'll have some guys that have some pretty good experience."

Q: If your evaluations show a need to change offensive or defensive schemes, will you do that?

Zook: "If we think we need to change some schemes, then we will. If there was one way of doing things, everybody would be doing it. It's what your players know, it's what your coaches know, it's getting your guys to play as fast and as hard as they can play. I promise that if it needs to be changed, we're gonna do it. That's part of the evaluation process."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories