Zook Pleased With Spring Progess So Far

There are still four practices remaining for Illinois spring football, but head coach Ron Zook met with the media to discuss his team. He talked about spring developments, the transition for the new coaches, and the improvement of the defense. He also talked about the progress of some key performers.

Ron Zook felt his Illinois football team needed to reduce turnovers and the giving up of big plays. He commented Tuesday on the team's progress in these areas.

"For the most part, I think they've done what we've asked them to do. We've made some strides. Offensively, we talked about taking care of the football. We stressed that and stressed that and stressed that.

"For the most part we have. Obviously, this will be ongoing as we get into the fall. It's a constant thing. We had a little bit of an issue with the center snaps at times, but that's something we can continue to work on also.

"We also said we had to do whatever we could do to eliminate big plays. This past week, the intensity really picked up on the defensive side of the ball. We've got some guys that can make some explosive plays offensively, and for the most part we've gotten better there.

"It's kind of a Catch-22. You want your offense to come up with big plays, but you don't want your defense to give up big plays. They're both striving to accomplish those goals. But what it does, it helps both the defense and the offense."

Zook feels the coaching changes made in the offseason have worked out well.

"I think the transition with the new coaches was probably as smooth as you could ask for. The new guys jumped right in there. We've kept the same schedule with the things we do, and we didn't have an issue there.

Many of the players got to know the new coaches prior to the beginning of spring ball.

"Our players are around here all the time. They hang out here, particularly the young guys. When coaches take a new job, they don't have a home yet so they spend a lot of time here.

"We have the kind of guys you do get to know, and they did a good job getting to know the players not only on the field but off the field. As coaches, we strive to have them know us off the field as well. They've done a good job of that."

The offense seems to be coming together despite four changes. Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz and offensive line coach Joe Gilbert are new to the team, and receivers coach Jim Pry and quarterback coach Kurt Beathard are coaching different positions.

"I felt like it would, for a couple reasons," Zook explains. "Everyone has to coach their personality, but we stay with the same terminology and system. The transition has probably been harder for the new coaches than the players.

"A lot of times, when you bring in a new offensive coordinator, the terminology changes. But I think we made the right decision of sticking to the things we do, the terminology they know.

"Of course, Kurt Beathard being here the last couple years, he knows Juice (Williams), he knows Eddie (McGee), he knows their personalities. And he recruited Jacob (Charest), so he knows him. That's been a positive as well."

Zook is pleased with the new level of intensity shown by the defense especially. It may concern some fans, but intensity is a necessary component of a good football team.

"Some of it is talk. You want them to be competitive. There were times last year we all felt we weren't competitive enough and didn't fly around enough. That's something we've stressed as well.

"I want people leaving Memorial Stadium saying, 'Those guys are playing hard and having fun.' That wasn't the case all the time last year. It's competition, but when they get in the locker room it's over. That's what you have to have."

If anyone knows why the Illinois team lacked intensity last season, Zook would love to find out. It is a complex issue, to say the least.

"I wish I would have known. You go back and evaluate everything from day 1. We did a few extra different things (this year), but every team's different. I always say the last game, 'There's never gonna be this group of people together again.' It's never gonna be this way because guys are different. They become more mature. Guys are older, guys are playing different roles. So their personalities change.

"I really feel like it's coming together and there's a team atmosphere. There's guys caring about each other. The offense wanting the defense to do well, the defense wanting the offense to do well. But when you get into the competition, they're competing."

Safety Donsay Hardeman had neck surgery last fall, so he hasn't practiced this spring. Will he be able to play this fall?

"He's got to have one more CT scan, I believe in mid May. The last one said everything was fine. The bone is continuing to heal. He's back to normal now, but there for awhile I was worried about him mentally and emotionally. When you see him out there, he's whooping and hollering getting them going. Donsay is a guy who loves to be part of a team.

"I feel pretty certain that, if he chooses to play, which I think he will, he'll be ready to go. I've given him articles, and there's people I've actually coached who had similar things happen to them. They came back and played. This is more serious than a knee surgery, so it takes awhile to get the confidence back. As has been explained to me, it will never happen in that particular spot again. It's stronger than it was in the beginning."

The two starting safeties this spring have been Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards. But when asked who has stepped up this spring at the safety spots, Zook mentioned two freshmen.

"Sup (Supo Sanni) has really stepped up. I think he has a chance to be a very good player. He has great range. He's a 220 pound safety who can run and cover an awful lot of ground. He's a tough guy who likes to get in there and mix it up.

"Ashante (Williams) is probably a little bit behind that in his learning curve, but he's had a pretty good spring as well. He was out of football for a year, so that makes a difference too."

Zook also had praise for two other freshmen who sat out last fall, cornerback Pat Nixon-Youman and receiver Jack Ramsey.

"For a guy that's missed football this past fall, he (Pat Nixon-Youman) is way ahead of the game. He's had a very productive spring. He's gonna help us. He's just like Jack Ramsey. They're competitive guys, they're energy guys, they're enthusiastic and make plays. Jack at least played on the show (Scout) team. Pat didn't do anything. Jack can not only help you as a receiver, but he's a return man as well."

Zook could think of nothing he is overly concerned about at this point in the spring.

"No. If you'd asked me that last week, I'd have probably been concerned about the defensive intensity. But they've raised that level. Last Saturday, I think we played about as good a defense as anytime since I've been here. We've got to keep going."

Zook was not ready to make any final determinations as to the starting linebackers.

"With the way our linebacker corps is, you don't have to make that decision until the week or two before the first game. Our first four games are against spread teams. So you're playing more like a nickel type situation now.

"I think Martez (Wilson) has done a nice job in the middle. He's big and thick, and they won't bounce him out of there. His brain synapses are clicking. He can run and do all the things we all know he can."

Who would be the starting nickel back at this time?

"Probably Travon Bellamy, if we had to play today. Dere (Hicks) could be as well. Dere's leg is still bothering him, so he may not even be available on Saturday. He'll be all right, but we want to get that thing fixed."

Zook emphasized that no one has secured his position for fall.

"We're getting to the point where we have competition at most positions. I think that's a good thing. It keeps you on edge a little bit. I don't know if there's been any big surprises, but I don't think there's anyone who says there's nothing to worry about, including Juice. And Juice knows that and will be the first to tell you. Eddie wants to play. He's a football player and is gonna play a lot."

The running backs have asserted themselves well this spring. Zook was asked about upcoming sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure, but he believes all four can contribute.

"I think they're gonna continue to get better and better. We felt at the time they were very talented guys. If you go back and look at the Big 10, other than Michigan State, there wasn't one guy that was the dominant guy. Even Ohio State, they're gonna have more than one running back.

"I was talking with Jason in the training room Sunday about how his elbow hurt. I told him, 'Have you ever seen a running back who doesn't get beat up? You guys attract a lot of attention.' But you like those big physical guys like Jason and Mikel who can run.

"Troy (Pollard) is kind of back to his old form. It's great to see him out there running the way he can run."

Zook was asked if he will open up the offense more since there are so many playmakers available.

"The offense is not gonna change. There's no question Coach (Mike) Schultz will add his personality to it. That's expected. I think Michael Oh-Oh (Hoomanawanui) has had a great spring. He's a much better player, just as you'd expect him to be going into his senior year. Hubie (Graham) has had a good spring. We have a situation where we will use more two tight ends.

"And you also have the receivers who can run. Jack Ramsey, Jarred (Fayson), A.J. (Jenkins). Cordale Scott's had an unbelieveable spring. He's really come on and given Jeff Cumberland all he wants.

"The more you have that kind of competition, the better you're gonna be. Cordale's done the things we knew he could, with his toughness and so forth. The more guys you've got, the more weapons you've got, the better chance you have."

There were four practices left when Coach Zook held his press conference. He hopes this week runs as smoothly as the previous three.

"I think it's important with the four practices we have left to make as much progress as we did last week. I thought last week was by far our best week, particularly on the defensive side of the football, the competition and aggressiveness. I think it's important we continue to do that this week. If we can do that and get out without any injuries Saturday, we will have had a successful and productive spring."

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