Fighting Illini Hope Changes Produce Spark

The Fighting Illini football team is under increased pressure to turn its season around, beginning this weekend when Michigan State visits for Homecoming. Illini coaches and players are struggling to find answers. This week's practices have been dominated by discussion of change, beginning with Eddie McGee as the new starting quarterback.

Illinois players and coaches continue to look to the past to understand and solve their problems. It is hard to focus on the next opponent when talk continues to center on past losses, but both topics continue to dominate.

The Illini have played three teams in the top 18 in the country, and weaknesses have been exposed. The biggest concern is that the players don't give up on the season with winnable games still on the schedule. A couple wins could boost confidence enough to turn the season around.

Senior cornerback Dere Hicks is just as confused by what has transpired as anyone. But he remains optimistic.

"I thought this year we really came together as a team, and I thought things would be a little better than they are now. But it's still early in the season. It's not time to hit the panic button. We've got time to recover and come back and get some wins."

Junior defensive end Clay Nurse feels the same way.

"I thought we would be way ahead of where we are now. I did not see this situation happening. We're trying to stay optimistic and stay happy for our teammates. We have a lot of young guys that have not experienced this before on the collegiate level.

"With tension comes pressure. Pressure to me is a good thing. You see who wants to play ball. There are two ways to deal with pressure. You can stand up and face it, or your goals change. Our coaches will not allow our goals to be changed. They're gonna force us to stand up and face pressure."

The goals haven't changed, but there will be some changes in personnel and overall game-planning to shake things up and provide a new spark.

"We've made some changes, a lot of different things," Illinois head coach Ron Zook relates. "We're doing some different things with the staff, how we're doing things. We're doing some different things with preparing and game-planning. This thing's not broke. We've got to tweak it here and there. We've just got to make sure we get it fixed."

Most of those changes were not announced publicly. But Zook offered clues to some of the possible personnel moves.

"Particularly at the receiver positions, hopefully we're always battling and battling at those positions. Same on defense, like in the secondary, I want to get competition. Healthy competition is good for everybody. It's good for the football team. It keeps people on their toes."

Jack Ramsey is playing better and may be one of the beneficiaries of the receiver changes.

"Jack has done a good job. If you remember when he caught the ball, you saw the excitement and enthusiasm when he jumped up, and that's what we have to have. We have to have excitement and energy."

Zook may also give a couple second string offensive linemen more playing time.

"I think Corey Lewis has to play more, and he did play more on Saturday. For a couple reasons, I think Ryan Palmer has to be more consistent at times. He was better last week, but in the last series right before the half he got into some issues. Graham Pocic is another guy we have to get in the game. It goes back to being able to keep guys fresher early and giving them the opportunity to be better as we get into the second half of the game."

The biggest change was announced. Junior Eddie McGee has replaced Illini career total offense leader Juice Williams at the helm of the offense. Zook hopes he can provide new energy to the offense. Illini quarterback coach Kurt Beathard concurs.

"Eddie has been great (this week). He loves a challenge. He's a kid who wants to do well. He's got a spark. He's a kid you don't have to browbeat because he's a coachable kid and knows what he needs to do to get better.

"The more reps he gets, the faster he sees it. He'll be fine that way. That's one of the benefits. He has the anticipation that we count on. He has anticipation, we just have to be quick in the pocket, quick eyes and quick feet and ready to go."

Beathard believes McGee will adjust rapidly to the new role as he has prepared properly for it throughout his career.

"The good thing is he's had a chance to prepare the same way as the starter all year long and the last couple years. There's nothing new to him insofar as his preparedness is concerned. The rep percentage goes up for him, which is a benefit to him."

Zook did not make this decision lightly. He cares deeply about his players, and he knows how hard it is to be a star upperclassman facing demotion.

"Obviously, it's not something you do overnight. We put a lot of thought into it. It is important to note this is not one guy's fault. We haven't gotten into the endzone, and it's everybody.

"Like I told the team, we're all part of this. We're all responsible, and everybody's got a piece of it. Unfortunately, quarterback is the one position that gets the most notice. But I can assure you Juice will be part of this team and will be on the sidelines just like Eddie was. That's the great thing about the situation. We have two great guys who can win for us."

Among the adjustments necessitated by this change is the center snap. Senior center Eric Block says there is a difference between Williams and McGee that affects direct snaps.

"His hands are kind of like him. They're long and skinny. So it's a little bit of an adjustment. When taking snaps from center, we have to get used to each other again. Yesterday (Monday), on the center exchange the ball hit the ground once. I'm not used to those long hands anymore. We'll be fine, we'll adjust."

Illinois doesn't huddle on every play, but Block says there are differences between the two quarterbacks in the huddle.

"They're both very different in the huddle. Juice is all business, he's very serious. He's real focused. That's a great quality you want to have in a quarterback.

"Eddie's a little more loose. There's a lot of joking around and stuff, which is also great. Any change at this point is nice, and having a loose attitude is kind of good to have. Obviously, there's a different dynamic there, but we're comfortable with it."

Block knows both quarterbacks extremely well. He believes the team has accepted the change.

"I'm excited Eddie finally got a chance to prove the kind of player he is. I've been at center enough to know each quarterback for a long time. Everybody's on board, so we're all just kind of waiting to see what happens."

Zook was asked how this change affects quarterbacks Jacob Charest and Nathan Scheelhaase.

"I think that Jacob Charest is making great progress. My big thing is I don't want to get too many sticks in the soup. Nathan Scheelhaase, there's no question in my mind he is a heck of a football player. Once again, it goes back to how many sticks you want to stick in the pot. This is something that we've decided to do, and we're going to see what happens.

Do you still plan to redshirt the freshman Scheelhaase?

"I would lean toward yes, probably. Once again, he's going to be a heck of a talent, as is Jacob. It's funny because it's the one position we talked about before we started camp. You felt like down the road, now you're in pretty good shape."

Scheelhaase continues to give the varsity defense good looks on the show team in practices.

"Unbelievable. Unbelievable look, and he does the things that he's asked to do. All he wants to do is win. If you asked Nathan if he'd want to play safety, he'd go play safety."

The Illini defense appeared demoralized late in the Penn State game, understandable if not ideal. But to a man, the players say they have not given up on the season. Senior safety Donsay Hardeman speaks for the defense.

"Monday through Friday, we're all focused as one. I can't really speak for the offense because they go against the scout team in practice. But as a defensive unit, we try to pick each other up. We'll be fine."

Zook has no concerns about practices and his team's game preparation.

"Practice has never been an issue. These guys have given us everything we've asked them to do. Practice was spirited and focused on both sides."

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