Zook Relaxed With Media After Two Big Wins

Ron Zook finds media interaction a little easier these days. After two straight wins and improved play, the Illini football team is on an upswing. Zook discussed a variety of subjects in Sunday's teleconference including the quarterback situation, Terry Hawthorne, injuries, defensive line play, placekicking, punt blocks, running backs and more.

Illinois coach Ron Zook is encouraged by the status of quarterback Juice Williams. His sprained ankle makes him uncertain for the Northwestern game at this point, but it appears better than feared.

"They don't feel like it's quite as bad as they first thought. Right now, he's a day-to-day thing. We'll see how he progresses through the week. But we were all pleasantly surprised this morning. Obviously, it's an ankle, and it will take time to heal. I'd probably list him as questionable right now."

Sadly, Williams was off to a great start before the injury.

"Yeah, he really was. He was 5 for 5. I talked to him on the bus about the fumble, and he said, 'Coach, I'd never felt pain like that.' But it don't matter. The defense went out and put the fire out."

Jacob Charest played admirably in his second college game substituting for Williams.

"I think Jacob played extremely well. I'm very proud of him. I thought everybody stepped up. That's the game. Everybody's losing players. Iowas lost their guy, and of course Northwestern's getting bummed up a little bit.

"I've felt all along he was a good quarterback. In the beginning of the year, before we even started, I felt like our quarterback position the next few years, we're in pretty good shape. I think you've got to have a trigger to be a top team."

Eddie McGee has an important role to play, practicing both at receiver and quarterback. He may be needed to back up Charest against NW.

"With Juice being doubtful, day-to-day, right now (Charest starting) is the plan. We'll have Eddie ready to go as well, so we'll be able to do some different things with both of them on the field."

When asked whether Williams could be expected to play if he hadn't practiced during the week, Zook responded negatively.

"I think you have to practice (during the week). That's my philosophy. If guys don't practice, they're just not ready to play. Their mind might be right, they may think they're right, but they're not.

"The Florida State quarterback didn't practice all week. In the game Saturday night, he did some really good things. But when it came down to having the habit, he didn't have it. I don't know whether that had anything to do with him not practicing. But for every time a guy doesn't practice and plays well, I'll show you four, five, six or ten that won't. It doesn't work out."

Charest completed 10 of 19 passes against Minnesota, and three of the incompletions were drops by Jeff Cumberland, who otherwise had a good game. Zook doesn't want dropped balls.

"Jeff's not looking for that either. That's not what he sees himself doing. We haven't lost confidence in him because he has done some good things, great things. But he has to catch the ball though."

Running back Jason Ford gained 82 yards to lead the Illini Saturday. Some have wondered why Mikel Leshoure didn't start, but Zook said Ford had the better week in practice.

"It doesn't mean Mikel's done anything wrong. He's gonna play. What is does is it keeps them both on edge a little bit. And we've got to get Daniel (Dufrene) back in there as well. The guy that has the hot hand, the guy that does well in practice, is gonna play.

"It's hard to maintain the level of intensity you have to have to play the way you want them to play. It just happened that Jason was the hot hand and ran pretty well."

Defensive end Clay Nurse had a great game with four sacks plus one additional tackle for loss. Zook praised his effort while reminding of the contributions from the entire defensive line.

"I thought Clay had an exceptional game. He's a talented guy. There's one thing about the defensive linemen. I always tell them I don't know when the plays are gonna come, but they're gonna come. Sometimes, the opportunity's right for you, and it just happened to be his.

"Josh Brent had a heck of a game as well. That's kind of the way things started. Josh's first half in particular, he was unbelieveable. When they started worrying about him, that kind of loosened up the corner to Clay. The inside guys played it pretty well. I'm not taking anything away from what Clay did. He had a heck of a game."

Freshman cornerback Terry Hawthorne had a pick 6, giving him two straight weeks of game-changing plays. Zook was asked if that was Hawthorne's last interception return for touchdown.

"I hope not. I'd like to have one a week. Like I told him, 'You're two for two. You had a play in the game your first start, and you had a play Saturday. Let's get a big play next week.'

"The more you play, the more comfortable and relaxed you become. If he knows more and more what to do, it becomes easier for him. He's not thinking, he's just able to use his ability and let it go."

Placekicker Matt Eller has suffered through a sophomore slump. He appears to be thinking too much and forcing his kicks. He battles Derek Dimke every week in practice for the starting job.

"They've been competing the last couple weeks. Derek has been trying to compete with it. But during the week, Matt's been the guy that's walked away with it. On the same token, it gets to a point in time where we've got to make them in the game."

Illinois has had punts blocked the last two weeks. Zook explained what happened on each.

"I'm not making excuses, but in the Michigan game we were down to our fourth team fullback. It wasn't all the punter/snapper's fault. Saturday, the snapper pulled the punter over about half a yard, and that's all it took. He can't do that. The punter's got to be right behind where the shield is.

"They didn't do anything special or anything we hadn't worked on. But when the punter gets moved over half a yard and doesn't punt right behind the shield, it gives them an opportunity to block the punt."

Other than Williams, the Illini are in decent shape physically for late in the season. Tight ends Hubie Graham and Michael Hoomanawanui and receiver A.J. Graham missed the Gopher trip but should be back for Northwestern.

"Hubie's grandmother passed away, so he'll be home for a couple days for the funeral. Oh-Oh (Hoomanawanui) feels well. He was excited and in good spirits. I told him I feel pretty good about him.

"I think A.J. probably could have played. Certain guys would have been able to play, but sometimes those athletic guys have to have everything just right. He seems like he is in pretty good shape. Both safeties came out of the game in pretty good shape. Other than Juice, we're probably in as good a shape as possible. I'd list Oh-Oh as probable, Juice as questionable."

Arrelious Benn was the victim of a vicious spear job on a long pass reception. He was dinged, but he's tough and went back into the game.

"It was his jaw, but he was fine. He got hit pretty good too. I was glad he could hold onto the ball. He made a great play there."

Zook is looking ahead only one week. Northwestern invades Champaign Saturday, and the Wildcats are always a tough opponent for the Illini.

"Obviously, this is a big, big game. All games are big, but this is a big game for both clubs. They got us last year, and we've gotta return the favor. It'll be a war, a thing where you can throw out records. It's been my experience in the games I've played against them. I don't think there's any question it will be that kind of game."

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