Injury Situation, Secondary Among Zook Topics

As suspected, a solid victory over Illinois State did little to calm the concerns of the Illini fandom toward the fate of the Illinois football team for 2009. Imperfections overrule the successes in the minds of many fans. Ron Zook fielded more questions about the defensive backfield and discussed other topics in this week's press conference.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook saw much to his liking in the game with Illinois State, at least in the first half and the first drive of the second half.

"I think the first half of the game, we played a lot closer to the way we would expect us to play. As a coaching staff, I liked the way our offense came out in the first series of the third quarter when we went down and scored.

"We had too many penalties and stuff like that that we need to get corrected, but on the same token I think we made progress. Do we have to continue to make progress? Absolutely."

It appears the wounded are making quick recoveries and should be ready to go for Ohio State a week from Saturday.

"Health-wise, everyone practiced yesterday. Martez (Wilson) was out in a red jersey running around and he would bite at the bit. Hopefully, we will be 100 percent by the time Monday comes around."

Zook announced his players of the game for ISU.

"Jason Ford was the offensive player of the game, Doug Pilcher was the defensive player of the game, and Aaron Gress was the special teams player of the game. Aaron had four tackles on kickoffs, two solo tackles and two assisted tackles. He did a great job."

One big difference between the Missouri and ISU games was how much more the players were involved emotionally against the Redbirds.

"The emotion is a big thing. That really was a big thing to me. I pointed it out to them on Doug Pilcher's interception. You saw the sideline. They were jumping. The offensive coaches were jumping, Jarred Fayson came down and he was jumping over people, Woody (coach Mike Woodford) got run over.

"In football, you work too hard not to enjoy it. Guys make big plays. You watch Dere Hicks, he's running down and getting blocks, getting in front of people and sprinting down the field. I think we have made a lot of progress. We are not there yet, obviously, but we have to continue to make progress. I think we played more in the first half like how we are supposed to play."

When asked what the coaches did to inspire the Illini for week 2, Zook deferred to the players.

"I think it was them doing it. As bad as we all felt after the first game, they felt worse. That's when I knew we had a chance. If it didn't bother them and they didn't care, then we would have some issues.

"I don't know if it got out last week or not, but Rejus (Arrelious Benn) had a team meeting on Monday after the first game. I'm not sure what they talked about, but I know they watched some tape. But those are the things you have got to have."

A major topic of concern among the media was how the defensive backfield continues to give up many pass completions and big plays. Zook addressed the subject in depth.

"I'll be honest, when I left here Saturday night I didn't have concerns because I've coached secondary for a lot of years. I've been on both sides of the fence.

"But I came in and I watched the tape. I watched every single play. I came in at 6:30 Sunday morning. Did we play perfect? No. But everything bad that happened can be very easily corrected.

"The thing that upset me more than anything, more than the pass coverage, is missed tackles. You take away the three missed tackles, and you take away 110 yards from their passing game. Those are five-yard, four-yard, or three-yard pass plays that turn into big plays.

"Now, occasionally the shot they hit for 18 yards twice, that's going to happen sometimes. If they throw the ball and catch it and if the corner doesn't hit the guy, it's a timed route. It's like I tell them, they are throwing that route and we have 10 guys on the field if the corner doesn't get a jam on the receiver. Those are things we can get corrected, and those are things we are going to get corrected.

"If you miss a tackle or a charge or if a linebacker doesn't take his man, those are just little mistakes. But you can't have those mistakes. Those are the things that as a coach you have to try to correct. You have to make sure the system is simple enough so you aren't trying to do too much. But we are going to continue to get better.

"Everyone wants Terry Hawthorne in there. I do too. You want good athletes out there. But the thing you don't want to do, particularly back there, is guys getting thrown in too early and they lose their self confidence. It can happen back there. It's a mistake that you make, it's a very little mistake. One step is three yards. You have to make sure you're not losing steps, but that you're gaining steps."

Senior safety Donsay Hardeman continues to attract criticism, and some of it is deserved. But Zook's explanation on the adjustments Hardeman is trying to make after his major neck surgery shines some light on the subject.

"Here is what is going through Donsay's mind now. Donsay is a hitter. That's what he has grown up on. When he was in high school in Jacksonville, Florida, that is what he did. I said, `Donsay look, just get them on the ground.

"There are two reasons why. I care about your safety, and they are going to call you on stuff.' Like the call they made in the Missouri game. It wasn't (a personal foul), but they are going to call it if it looks like it. There was no head-to-head, he didn't even lead with his head.

"He's trying to change his style with a little bit of tackling. We will get that corrected. It's just a different style he is going to have to come up with."

There is also continuing concern about the nature of the Illinois schedule for 2009. Much of the problem was created by those who draw up the Big 10 schedule since there was no bye week until the end of the season. Under the circumstances, Zook finds value in a bye week after just two games.

"I've been asked the question a bunch of times about having the open day this early, if I would rather have it later. I'm obviously a proponent of the open day. I think it's very important. It's just hard to go 12 straight weeks, it really is. It's hard for the coaches, and it's hard for the players.

"Would we rather have it later, maybe two weeks later? Yes, maybe. I like the fact that it is coming at a good time. I think it gives us an opportunity for us to get better, which we obviously have to do.

"We have to continue to make progress. We have to get healed up, and I think it's important to get some rest too before this gigantic challenge that we are getting ready to face in not only the next game, but the stretch of games that we are getting ready to play. I'm kind of glad that at least we have an open day, that's important."

After working Sunday through Wednesday, the players get some time off before beginning Ohio State preparations next week.

"They will be off Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They will get four days to catch up (with academics) and regroup. I think once again that it's good for them. It keeps them from getting stale, particularly for the younger guys.

"I had a lot of freshmen tell me yesterday that they were understanding what I meant when I talked about hitting the wall. And I told them this is a bit too early to hit that wall. But I said, `How would you like to be Juice (Williams) in his freshman year when he was the starting quarterback and there were no open dates?'"

Illini players have a chance to return home for a couple days if that is their preference. Illini coaches will remain busy, however. Seven coaches can be out on recruiting trips, and they will be out Thursday through Saturday. Zook will do some recruiting Friday. It is a good opportunity to show interest in their top prospects while their competitors play games.

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