After Wednesday's practice, Illinois head coach Ron Zook strolled over to the media awaiting a quote or two. He seemed relaxed, and he had a smile on his face. Considering the pressure building for the start of the 2009 season, his behavior seemed somewhat surprising.
But then again, he was leaving the players still huddled on the field. Normally, Zook is the last one off the field. But on this day, team leaders kept everyone behind for a players-only meeting. Zook has been talking about how the best teams are player-driven rather than coach-driven, and his current team seems to be taking that to heart.
Fifth year defensive end Doug Pilcher may have explained the makeup of the 2009 Illini team best.
"I think we have a lot of talent on this team, a lot of potential. But it still comes down to us having to play the games. I think one thing that makes us different this year is our chemistry. It kind of reminds me of the 2007 season and the chemistry we had then."
With the loss of two starters to graduation, defensive end has been a concern. But Pilcher says others have filled in nicely.
"We've had a couple players step up to fill the roles we lost last year. Antonio James, Clay Nurse and I are gonna take over the starting roles. We will get the majority of snaps. We've got a couple younger guys, Michael Buchanan and Whitney Mercilus, who are a little bit raw right now. They may see some time."
Halfway through spring ball, the young Illini defense began to assert itself. That confidence and focus has continued this fall, giving defenders the belief this group can have success. Senior cornerback Dere Hicks likes what he sees.
"I think we have a swagger. In Rantoul, we came together as a team. The last two years, we didn't really come together the way we wanted to. I think we're gonna have that swagger, that intensity this year."
New middle linebacker Martez Wilson has matured a great deal as a junior. He has become a leader for the defense and an eloquent spokesman for it.
"Our defense will be as good as we want it to be. We continue to work hard, from the winter programs all the way up to now. If we go into the games executing and making tackles, have no missed assignments, I feel we can be one of the best defenses there is."
And since he has battled the highly rated Illini offense every day in practice, Wilson is qualified to evaluate the improvement in senior quarterback Juice Williams, especially as a leader.
"Definitely. He has stepped up vocally and with his work ethic. He tries to get the players involved all the time. And his off-the-field activities, he volunteers in the community. Players respect all that."
Star junior receiver Arrelious Benn agrees.
"Big difference. Leadership is something we didn't have last year, and he has taken on the role to be one of the leaders of the team. He knows what he wants to do, and he's willing to do anything he has to do to get the job done. Juice is a guy everyone looks up to."
It has also helped that Benn and Williams have continued to work together for three years.
"You build chemistry with a quarterback over time," Benn explains. "It's great to have a guy you've worked with for several years."
Benn has help this year. The Illinois receiver corps is the best it's been both in talent and depth. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson is a big addition according to Benn.
"We compliment each other alot. I kind of look at it like the dual receivers the Arizona Cardinals have with (Larry) Fitzgerald and (Anquan) Bolden. We need each other to do what we need to do.
"Offensively, we're still gonna be the type of team we've always been. We will still have a passing game and a threat running. We have a lot of big, physical receivers, guys who can get out there and compete. It's just a great group of receivers."
Fayson has been on campus 20 months awaiting his eligibility, so he and Williams have also had time to learn about each other.
"Jarred is my neighbor, so we get the chance to be around each other all the time," Williams relates. "I think an important aspect of the quarterback-receiver relationship is being around each other and always talking about football. Him trying to pick my brain and learn exactly what I'm reading, who I'm looking at on certain coverages. Us doing that has really helped our team and the results on the field.
"It has given him a chance to learn exactly where the ball is gonna be, and me a chance to know exactly where he is gonna be on each route. He's done a great job so far. We're at the point where we're on the same page."
Williams struggled against blitzes last fall, so he worked hard in the offseason to correct the problem.
"I'm much more prepared now. Obviously, we had some difficulty with the blitz, but I don't think it'll be a problem at all. Identifying blitzes and identifying hot routes is something I really dedicated myself to study after this past season. So I have a better grasp for it. Once I see it, I know what to do now."
Williams has embraced the quarterback lifestyle. And he has learned over the years to provide quotes for the media that are emotionally neutral to provide no fodder for opponents. His comments about the upcoming game with Missouri are a good example.
"It should be a lot of fun. It gives us a chance to come out against a quality opponent. It will give us an opportunity to see exactly where we are as a team."
Benn is tired of talking about last year's frustrations. He and his teammates have worked hard to reverse the losing audit from 2008.
"I wouldn't say we have a chip on our shoulders, but we know what we need to do. We need to stop talking about it and go out there and do it."
Benn looks forward to the Missouri challenge.
"We're all high intensity and in a great mood. We are ready to go out there and display what we've been going in camp. A lot of guys are ready to play in that great atmosphere. We want to go out there and just have fun. We have no doubts about anything."