Young Talent Makes Illini Football Promising

Spring football gives every player on the team a chance to compete for fall playing time. There is no pressure to prepare for a game, so everyone is on equal footing in the eyes of the coaching staff. Without the graduated seniors at practice, the younger players and backups have an opportunity to impress.

Illinois football coach Ron Zook discussed the makeup of his new team at a press conference to begin spring practice. A few players won't be available this spring.

"Three guys won't be able to participate. Daryle Ballew, who's coming off shoulder surgery; Donsay Hardeman, who's not gonna be able to go through spring (due to neck surgery); and Miami Thomas (knee and shoulder surgery). I think Miami's gonna be ready to go by the end of spring.

"Sirod Williams is ready to go. I want to be careful with Sirod. He's a fifth year guy and he's played a lot of football. We don't have to go out and reinvent the wheel with him. Let's bring him along slowly. He's gone through 6:00ams, he's gone through everything. He's gonna be fine, but I don't want to pound that knee. I want to make sure he's ready September 5th.

"Josh Brent's status has not changed. It's in the hands of the legal system. I think his court date's something like April 30th. Josh is suspended."

With that formality out of the way, Coach Zook was eager to discuss what he does have to work with this spring.

"We have a lot of veteran players back, a lot of guys who have played a lot of good football. We're excited about them. As a staff, a lot of young players are around that we're excited to see. We think we have a lot of guys who are going to be very good football players who haven't done it yet, who haven't been exposed to the rigors and pressures of being in the limelight. We're excited to see that."

The offensive line will be young and inexperienced, but Zook feels the potential is there for a quality unit.

"I've seen Jon Asamoah kind of take the next step. Jon's kind of a quiet guy. We all thought he would be a heck of a football player. But he's taken the next step of leadership. When we got back here, he said to (Coach) Lou (Hernandez), 'I want to get these guys together. What do we need to do.' He's taking the initiative to do those kind of things.

"Think about where Jeff Allen started. Think about what he did as a true freshman. He did have the spring semester and summer to help him. Look at Corey (Lewis). After he played in his first game he asked, 'Why did you wait so long to play me?' I said I wanted to wait until you were 18. Those guys are gonna get better and better.

"Having Eric Block back is big. He's a guy that's in his fifth year, and he's done it and knows what to do. Randall Hunt showed signs last year of being the kind of guy we think he can be. He had a great offseason. Graham Pocic's gonna push him right to the end. Ryan Palmer had the broken bone in his foot last year, and he was starting at the time. It gives you a little depth there as well.

"We don't have a lot of experienced guys. But every football team's gonna have guys that are inexperienced. You can't buy experience, you've got to go play. It's been fun to watch how Joe (Coach Gilbert) and those guys have interacted. It goes back to having good kids, and those guys have done a nice job.

"You watch Jeff Allen walk around here, he's just a different person. He messes with me now, and I love that. Last year, he wouldn't say anything. Now, he feels good about himself. He's lost weight, he looks great.

"That's part of coaching in college. You get to watch a young man reach his goals and improve. You look at (quarterback) Juice (Williams). Go back and look where Juice was as a freshman and where he is now, it's not the same thing. You can't just take a pill and become a senior."

When asked if his receiver corps was the best he's been around, he was reluctant to answer. But he definitely agreed it would be a team strength.

"All Juice has to do is his job. We feel like we're gonna have enough weapons, that everybody can have a part in it. Regus (Benn) has a chance to be a special player. I'm excited to see what Jarred Fayson can do.

"Jack Ramsey's gonna be on the field. I remember watching Jack play in high school, I thought that he could be good. Jeff Cumberland. I look for Cordale Scott to become a good player.

"After the Northwestern game, the only thing A.J. Jenkins cared about was getting home. He was just worn out. He was mentally and physically exhausted. The pressure these guys are under academically and football wise, it's hard for a true freshman to play. I think A.J. is gonna be a special guy as well.

"Chris Duvalt has had a great offseason. Hoo-hoo (tight end Michael Hoomanawanui), the leadership he's shown I've been very impressed with. He's always been the kind of guy who you knew would be a take charge type of guy.

"So how are we gonna keep them all happy? That's the thing I'm happy about right now. This is a team. These guys are all excited about the University of Illinois football program. As long as they stay like that, I think we'll have a chance to have some success."

The defensive line must be rebuilt.

"We have some questions on both lines, but there's probably more questions on the defensive line than the offensive line. You're losing Dave Lindquist, a heck of a player. You're losing Will Davis, a heck of a player. And Derek Walker. This gives the other guys a chance to come in.

"I think Corey Liuget is gonna be a heck of a player. Antonio James has played an awful lot of football, and he's ready to go. Doug Pilcher is a fifth year guy who was a starter last year. And we have some young guys who are gonna have to go in there."

Linebacker is another area where youngsters will need to step up.

"We have a brand new group at linebacker. I'm looking forward to seeing them. They're talented guys. Experience is a factor. But they're guys that can play. I think it will be interesting to see those guys compete."

Martez Wilson is being tried at middle linebacker this spring. He is fully recovered from injuries sustained when he was stabbed trying to break up a fight last winter. Coach Zook feels that Wilson needs to make improvements, but he was also quick to defend Martez for some bad publicity he received last fall.

"Martez is fine, he's 100%. He went through the whole winter program, so he hasn't missed anything. Hopefully, he'll continue to improve. We want him to be the type of player we all think he can be.

"People saw Martez close to a couple touchdowns in the Penn State game, and then all of a sudden everybody thought it was his fault. It wasn't Martez's fault.

"Does he play the way he's capable of playing right now? No, not like we feel he's capable of playing. He was third on the team in tackles. He had a lot of big plays and did a lot of great things. But just because he's in an area, people think it's his responsibility. I love Vontae Davis like a son. But those two touchdowns were Vontae's. Martez took the rap for it."

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