Illinois football coach Ron Zook held a press conference prior to the beginning of his first football practice Tuesday. He has 15 practices to fill holes left through graduation losses and develop the young talent on campus. He and his team are entering this spring with a much different attitude than last year, and he believes things are on the right track.
"This is our fifth spring practice as a group here, and I'm really looking forward to it. If the way things have been going is any indication, we've made a lot of progress since the end of the season. And it's important that we do make a lot of progress.
"I think we all learned a lot last year. Obviously, I learned an awful lot last year, and our coaches learned a lot last year. Maybe more importantly than anything, our players learned a lot last year. If we take the things we gleaned from last year, then I think we have a chance to make a lot of progress this year.
"There's things I would have changed. I think we got away from what's important. We were worried about winning instead of letting the wins and losses take care of themselves. I think our football team is focused and excited about being the kind of team they know they can be.
"For good football teams, it's every year. But like I said last year, we still have a long way to go. We weren't there yet. I think that's all still part of the growing process. Part of getting your program to where it's winning on a consistent basis is learning how to win and handling it and understanding it.
"The little things you have to do to not turn the ball over, to not take off plays. A step here, a step there. Play with the passion for the game we had with J (Leman), Justin (Harrison) and Martin O'Donnell. That's what I feel is coming back. That's what I'm excited about.
"They've got that taste in their mouths for what it's like, and they've got the taste in the mouth for what it's not like. Let's take care of what's important and let the chips fall where they may.
"I can't say enough about the way things have gone to this point. If that's any indication of the way the spring's gonna go, then I think we have an opportunity to learn a lot.
"These guys have competed, particularly from the 6:00am's. It was a lot of fun watching them compete. They competed right to the end. So if we carry that on, and there's no reason to think that we won't, then I think we'll make great strides. Fifteen practices is not very long to get an awful lot done. It starts today and go man go."
Coach Zook says there are two main points of emphasis this spring, two things that can make a big difference in the outcome of games.
"Two of the biggest things we've got to come out of spring football with are number one ball security. We cannot turn the ball over. And the other thing is we cannot give up big plays. If we get remarkably better in those two areas, we're gonna be a better football team just from that. We are gonna stress these things.
"On the defensive side, their job is to rip the ball out and get the ball. On the offensive side, their job is to take care of the football. Their job is to create big plays. On the defensive side, their job is to not give up big plays. If we get that competition we've got to have, then that's gonna make us a better football team."
There were three coaching changes since last fall, but Coach Zook feels there is a new enthusiasm on the staff as a result of the passion of the additions.
"I'm excited about our new coaches. That's probably our number one thing. You lose three coaches, and you wonder how the chemistry's gonna be. But for the guys coming in, it's a new job and they have the excitement and enthusiasm of a new job. It's kind of rubbed off on all of us. It's exciting both for the coaches and the players. The chemistry's already beginning to form."
Coach Zook feels it is easy to sell top assistant coaches on coming to Illinois, and it is a smooth transition for them fitting into the community and school.
"First of all, we've got good guys. Good people who are around good people. And there are good people around here. I've said this a number of times. Everybody who comes here loves living in Champaign. The people in the town make it easy to move. The children getting in schools.
"We get good players. That makes the transition easier. And usually if the families are happy the coaches are happy. We feel like we did our homework in hiring guys. And you watch how the players interact with them. I know they feel comfortable and feel good. There's something about the excitement of a new job. It's like Christmas. Anytime you're excited, that enthusiasm rubs off on all of us. It's been fun."
A big question mark is how well new Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz and senior quarterback Juice Williams blend together. Coach Zook anticipates no problems.
"Juice is making progress, but I don't think he's teaching Coach Schultz anything. It's not his first rodeo. He's coached a lot of third downs. One of the things that was exciting to me, when the new coaches came in we weren't gonna reinvent the wheel. If there was one offense, one defense and one special teams in the country, everybody would be doing it. This is what we believe in and feel comfortable with.
"If we just didn't turn the ball over, our record would have been much different last year. Everyone came in knowing the system and what we're going to do. Obviously, they (new coaches) are gonna put their own stamp on it.
"One of the reasons I wanted Coach Beathard to coach Juice was that Kurt knows what Juice and those guys can do. He knows what we've gone through the last two years. So now, there's very little change. Those kind of things will help Juice. The less you can change in terms of terminology and what you're trying to do, the better.
"Every year, the offense and defense is gonna change a little. You're gonna tweak things that didn't go as well as you planned. That happens regardless whether you have a coaching change. But I think this has been a very smooth transition, and hopefully you'll see that on the field.
"You see Juice around the offices all the time. I think him and Coach Schultz have hit it off big. I know Juice is excited. I talked to him last week during break, and he's looking forward to going out. I don't think that's gonna be any kind of an issue at all.
"I'm not saying everything's gonna be called the same as last year. As a coordinator, you call your personality. You call what you feel comfortable with. Other than those kinds of changes, that's really all you're gonna see. We're doing the same things."
What does he expect from Williams in his fourth year as a starting quarterback?
"Leadership is important for him. We've all seen him the way he started, the second year (a little better), he made improvement last year. We all know he's not where we want him to be. And now he needs to continue to improve. I think he will, I don't think there's any question.
"The thing that (former coordinator Mike) Locksley always talked to him about, quarterback is a way of life. Learning how to be a quarterback, you've got to think it, you've got to breathe it. And I think he's become more and more that type of person.
"The one thing I saw in him last year was how he talked to the media. He was much more confident. And he was a better player. We all know that sometimes the quarterback gets way too much credit, and way too much blame.
"If I'm not mistaken, there's three stadiums where he set records. One being at Michigan. There have been an awful lot of great players play at Michigan. I'm talking about a lot. And all I know is this. My #7 holds a record in that stadium. So he's done a lot of good things. Everybody tries to look at some things he didn't do so well. That's just part of the position as well."