Bye Week A Blessing For Illini Football

With an abbreviated nonconference schedule behind them, the Fighting Illini wade into Big 10 Conference play with an important road game against Ohio State Saturday. The Illini enjoyed a bye week, which allowed their wounds to heal. Coach Ron Zook discussed the value of the break, the status of players nursing injuries, and other topics in his weekly press conference.

Illinois coach Ron Zook opened his press conference with a statement:

"We are out of the preseason. We are jumping into the Big Ten, and I think that's a time that everybody is excited about. We will find out what we learned in the preseason. I think everybody understands the importance of the Big Ten schedule, and these next eight weeks are what you play for. We are excited about it and looking forward to it."

Zook was encouraged by the health of his team at this point in the season.

"Everybody practiced last night (Monday). I think the couple of days we had off was good for everybody, and now it's back to work. It starts this Saturday."

Quarterback Juice Williams sat out the Illinois State game. Will he be able to operate without pain against Ohio State?

"He's full go. He was not limited in practice. He's fine. He's got a strained muscle. Obviously he has to rehab it every day, but I don't foresee it being an issue. He doesn't feel like it's an issue and the trainers don't feel like it's an issue. When he gets out there and starts playing, I don't think he will even remember."

Middle linebacker and team leader Martez Wilson is lost for the season with a herniated disc in his neck. When will he have surgery?

"Martez is scheduled to have surgery on Monday. It will be a couple days, probably an overnight stay in the hospital. Then he will be back out here. The first few days we will be keeping an eye on him, but then he will start to rehab, which is three to seven months. I talked to the doctor myself, and the prognosis is good. He will probably be ready in time for spring ball.

"I think the good thing, just by the way the doctor spoke, is it is not going to be too long before he's able to get in the weight room and on the treadmill. He's not going to be down long. Obviously, he's got to be careful and that kind of stuff, but he won't be down long. He'll be able to get right back at it."

How is Wilson handling the setback?

"As well as you can take it. Last night I saw Texas lost a linebacker and Ohio State lost an offensive lineman, and it's an unfortunate thing. Football is a game that particularly early in the year, guys have injuries. I don't know if it's any more this year than any other year, but it seems like there are a bunch of guys that are out for the season already this year."

Zook said Wilson will qualify for a redshirt year should he decide to accept it. In the meantime, he will continue to contribute to the 2009 team. He will travel to away games when feasible.

"We plan on him coming to Columbus with us on Saturday. He was having fun out there watching us coach yesterday. I feel bad for him. Obviously, he has worked awful hard and prepared and really taken great strides to become the linebacker we all think and know he is capable of being. Now we have to wait another year to see it."

Running back Mikel Leshoure and safety Ashante Williams were suspended for the ISU game. Will they be available this weekend?

"Mikel and Ashante are back on the playing status, and I don't foresee any more issues there."

Running backs Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford both sustained sprained ankles earlier. Are the running backs now healthy, and will they continue to share the position?

"I think they are all 100 percent, and they are all healthy. Reggie (Mitchell) has done a great job with them. They all understand how important they are, they are all going to play and we need them all."

Freshman Justin Green continues to impress.

"Justin just keeps getting better and better. His brother goes to Ohio State, so I'm sure he's going to be excited when he runs out on the field. He just gets better.

"Everyone keeps asking, 'Are you going to redshirt this guy or this guy?' This is really early in the season. This is only our third football game. These guys are going to get better. You don't want to make decisions on a lot of them too early, but Justin keeps getting better and better."

Columbus, Ohio, senior receiver Jeff Cumberland saw reduced time in the ISU game after struggling against Missouri. Is he still in Zook's dog house?

"Guys don't ever get in our dog house. Jeff has done an unbelievable job here, he really has. Not just as a football player but as a person and as a student as well. Jeff is going to play a lot of football, he's going to continue to play.

"If you remember back last year, the same thing kind of happened. He had the foot problem and kind of got off to a slow start. But he's going to be out there, he's going to be playing and making plays.

"I think it's important that everyone is held accountable. I think as a coaching staff we are held accountable and players are held accountable. The great thing about Jeff Cumberland is that you know that he is going to correct anything that we or he don't feel good about. The players have to be held accountable, and it just helps them become better football players."

Illinois players and coaches have endured significant criticism in the last couple weeks. How are they dealing with it?

"It's part of the profession. Do you like it? No. There are a lot of things I get upset about as well so I can understand why people get upset. That means they care. They are passionate about their football team.

"It's kind of the society we live in now. Everybody wants to be undefeated. Whether you know anything about football or not, it gives them the opportunity to communicate and be involved with something. You just have to accept that as part of the business.

"Our coaching staff feels the same way about this football team as we did August 5 when we started. Five years ago, no one cared. Now people care. This is not our football team. This is the University of Illinois football program. Obviously it is our job to make them happy and to make our football team happy.

"That's what we all want. If people are upset, I don't blame them. There are some things that I am upset about as well. It's our job to make sure we get it corrected."

Of course, Zook also needs to vent his feelings. To whom does he turn?

"My poor wife for the most part. But luckily, we have a very close knit coaching staff. They want the same things, we all want the same things and are trying to accomplish the same things just like Coach Tressel (Jim, Ohio State head coach) and his coaching staff are. Sometimes it doesn't work exactly how you want it to work."

Zook bristled when asked about a murderer's row of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, the Illini's next three opponents. He wants his players thinking only about the upcoming opponent.

"They know the schedule, we talked about the schedule on our first meeting August 5. We know it's going to be a grind, and we are going to have to be ready to play. I think at this point in time, everybody knows these games are so important.

"We have eight Big Ten games. It's going to be critical that we do the best we can in every one of those games. If you begin to think past this first game, then they are not focused on the game at hand. We have to concern ourselves with one game. When this game is over we will look at the next game.

"That's not coach speak. This is going to be a tremendous challenge. It's going to be a great, great opportunity for our guys. They are excited about playing in front of all the people, in a hostile environment against a great football team. We can't be worrying about what is next. There is enough to worry about on Saturday.

"Every program I have even been around feels the same way. If you get ahead or if they get behind a particular play then usually it's going to jump up and smack you."

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