Illini Coach Ron Zook Meets The Press

Fighting Illini football coach Ron Zook met the media Sunday. He didn't make any glowing predictions, but he was as relaxed and upbeat as anytime in his five years at the helm. He discussed Juice Williams, Martez Wilson, the running back situation, special teams and much more.

Illinois coach Ron Zook provided a brief opening statement for his press conference.

"We've got three practices in already. We're very, very excited about the way the first three practices have been. I think everybody, the players and the coaches, are excited about going to Camp Rantoul. I think it'll be a lot of fun.

"I think they said it was the coolest summer since 1924. I knew we were going to Rantoul, it was going to get hot."

Zook then took questions from the assembled media. Highlights follow:

* On Juice Williams.

"Juice has matured and gotten better every way he's supposed to. I kind of compared him to Troy Smith (former Ohio State star). I didn't say he was going to win the Heisman, but from his junior to senior year he made another great stride.

"Juice has worked hard. For some reason, when they get to their senior year they turn the wick up a little bit. But he's gotten better with the leadership qualities and everything else. I know he's looking forward to this year and going to Rantoul.

"I think you will see what you normally see with a fourth year starter. It's a similar offense, so there's not a big learning curve. Your seniors are usually gonna be better players than they were as freshmen.

"Juice was in a different type of offense (in high school) that wasn't geared to make reads, where they could just let his athletic ability take over. There were times last year where he was to the point where he was reacting. As a football player, when you get to the point where you're reacting, that's when you are successful.

"The one thing about Juice, and we told him this when we recruited him, that if he did the things we felt like he could do, he could be the face of the program. I was in Puerto Rico with the Nike trip this year. The cab driver saw we were from Illinois and asked about Juice. It's a catchy name or whatever, but everybody knows who he is.

"You look back at all the great players who've played in Michigan stadium, and he holds the record. Has he been perfect? No. But he's made progress, and I think he's excited about his senior year."

* On Martez Wilson.

"I'm excited about Martez. I think this is Martez's year. He's really confident, and he understands he's in position now where he can kind of be the guy. Martez is a very humble guy. But when you're in the role of first J Leman and then Brit (Miller), the other guys just follow and let those guys be the leaders.

"Martez is the guy people are gonna be looking for. He had an unbelieveably great summer. You can tell it out there in practice. His confidence level and command of what he says is right on page.

"A lot of people make too much of moving him to the middle. We've done it with J, and we've done it with Brit. I just think, with the offenses you see more and more, we won't see an "I" attack until Michigan State. So you're gonna see more spread offenses. More and more, the middle linebacker has to be able to move. People empty the backfield, and you're gonna have to have a guy who can run.

"By the same token, Martez is benching over 405, he's pulling 328 from the floor. He can hold his own against anybody in the middle.

"Martez has a chance to reach all the expectations. People put these expectations on a true freshman, and it's hard. Football is different from high school to college. But I thought Martez has handled it well.

"There were some times where, because of where he was last year on some particular plays, people thought the touchdowns were his fault. They weren't his fault. This is his year to really show people that he does deserve to be talked about in the same circles with the awfully good linebackers in the league.

"The last three years, our MIKE linebacker has led the league in tackles. I don't want to put pressure on him that he's not doing a good job if he doesn't lead the Big 10 in tackles. But a lot of things revolve around him, the calls and so forth. It's important he has the kind of year we think he can."

* On Josh Brent.

"Josh Brent has had an unbelieveable month of July. He's worked his tail off, he's worked out extremely hard. Lou (Hernandez) our strength coach was very impressed with what he's done in preparation for the season. The way he's pushed through not only the running part but also the lifting.

"He didn't lose much (while incarcerated). It got a little warm for him yesterday, like for most of them towards the end of practice. But the leadership he's shown, he's done a great job."

* On new Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz and the revamped offense.

"One of the things that got me excited about Coach Schultz in the very beginning is he's about one thing, and that's winning. He's not into his offense, his philosophy. We've got a bunch of guys that have played a lot of football here. Our quarterback has started for four years. I just felt like we wanted to do the same things.

"As an offensive, defensive, and special teams staff, you're always tweaking your systems anyway. If you look at what they did at TCU, their offense is very similar. They use a little more 12 personnel, which we've been wanting to get into anyway, but we haven't had the two tight ends you have to have to do that consistently.

"There's no question you'll see his personality in the offense and play calling. If there is a place he has leeway, it's in that regard. But we talk alot. He had me coming in every morning so we could go over two or three things at a time. He wanted to make sure we were all on the same page."

* On special teams.

"We've done something a little bit different this year. When we're talking about personnel on the teams, when we're talking about what we want to accomplish on the teams, we're doing it as a staff now. It's not just Woody (Coach Mike Woodford) and I. We're getting everybody's input.

"I think we have enough talent now that, if they don't want to put out on special teams, they're gonna get their offensive and defensive reps cut because we've got some guys that can play. They've got to help us win a couple of games, they can't help us lose a game."

* On punting.

"Anthony (Santella) and I talked a little bit yesterday. As of today, Anthony's gonna go on scholarship. He deserves it, but on the same token we expect him to perform the way he has to perform. He's done it on the biggest stage in football, the Rose Bowl. There's no reason why we can't be consistent with it now.

"We've changed our punting system. We're working now a little bit on the rugby-style punt that's becoming very prominent. Anthony will be both our regular punter and our rugby punter."

"(Santella holding on placements) You'd like the punter to be the holder because those guys are together all the time. When you take a position guy, it cuts down on their individual position time. They've got another thing to be concerned about. But we're gonna put the best guy there.

"Steve (Hull, freshman receiver) is excited about doing it. He's got great hands. Chris James could possibly be the holder there. Once again, it's the best guy that's gonna be give us the best chance to win."

* On forcing opponents into more long drives.

"First of all, we stress it. If we don't have so many turnovers and give up big plays, our whole year is different. The only way you're gonna be successful is when you don't turn the ball over. We work all kinds of drills. You talk to the staff and get ideas they've done or seen, guys that have visited pro teams, etc. We've put a major emphasis on it to this point, and we'll continue to."

* On freshman receiver Terry Hawthorne.

"Terry is out there running around, but he can't catch yet. Terry broke his hand in the state championship game, and it didn't heal properly. This summer, he was moving one of the bunk beds in the dorm and he rebroke it. We felt like the only way we could be sure it's completely healed was stick a plate in there.

"He's chomping at the bit to be out there. On Tuesday, if the X-ray is like it's supposed to be, he could be released to do everything but contact. I've been very impressed with him and Tommie (Hopkins, East St. Louis teammate), their work ethic and attention to detail, how important it is to them.

"A guy like Terry Hawthorne, who's very gifted. Because of his God-given abilities, he has been very successful. But he and all these freshmen, Nathan Scheelhaase, Michael Buchanan, it's been unbelieveable with this class. I've been very impressed with them, with the way they've approached the game."

* Improvements with running back group since last year.

"Number one, Jason (Ford) and Mikel (Leshoure) are a year older. I think that makes an unbelieveable difference. I was teasing Jason the other day, 'Do you realize how much easier this year's gonna be? You're in condition, you're strong.'

"I thought Daniel (Dufrene) had an awfully good spring. He probably ended up, in my opinion, the number one running back this spring. That doesn't mean he's gonna be the guy. The competition is gonna make all of them better. Troy Pollard is 100% now.

"They're all a little bit different. It's up to us as a coaching staff to make sure we've got the right guy in there at the right time.

"Those two freshmen (Justin Green and Bud Golden), I've been very impressed with them the first three days. You can't get too high or too low too early with freshmen. As we continue to install and add offenses and defenses and special teams, things begin to get a little bit muddy. It'll settle out."

* On increasing turnovers by the defense.

"In three practices, we've probably got more turnovers with the defense than we did maybe the whole year, the whole spring. They feel like they've got something to prove.

"We've got some young guys who we feel are very talented. They lack some experience. But we've got a lot of guys who have gotten a lot of experience who have stepped up, particularly in the defensive line. Now is their chance to shine. It's what you like to see, that when a guy has his turn, he takes the reins and runs with it."

* On the present mindset and level of development of the team since Zook arrived at Illinois.

"Two years ago, we were fortunate enough to go to the Rose Bowl, so we overachieved. Then last year, we probably underachieved a little bit. First of all, you have to learn how to win, then obviously you have to learn how to sustain that. I think we learned some things about what you can and can't do with a younger team under certain conditions.

"It all goes back to what they believe. I told them this week, they'll be as good as they want to be. I think the leadership is the best it's been since we've been here. We've got guys who are not afraid to call guys out, guys who are stand-up guys, guys that have one thing in mind...winning.

"I don't feel any individualism, not that I did last year either. But I think these guys understand that the more they do to help their teammates reach their goals, the more chance they have of reaching their own goals."

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