Zook Pleased With 1st Illini Practice

Fighting Illini head football coach Ron Zook normally holds his first press conference before the first spring practice. This year, he had a chance to work with the team once before meeting the media. He was enthusiastic as usual, and he discussed some individuals stepping up to take leadership roles.

Illinois coach Ron Zook may be battered and bruised from his team's struggles and subsequent criticism the past two years, but he isn't letting it sour him on the new version of the Fighting Illini. He was upbeat after the first spring practice.

"It was exciting. It was a great start. We've got a long way to go, but most people are gonna say that in their first practice. The energy, the enthusiasm, the way we moved around on the field, the way the guys were focused on doing exactly what the coaches were asking them to do.

"And the coaching, there was a lot of teaching going on. One of the things I was very impressed with was the attitude of the players, they were sponges. And then the way the coaches were teaching. Particularly when you have a new offense and defense, those guys want to do well. They want to be focused and have fun. And the coaches had fun I thought."

Myriad questions need answers, and Zook hopes most can be answered this spring. The quarterback battle may be the biggest question, but it may not have a quick answer.

"Obviously, there are some questions that we've got to get answered before the first game. You want to get as many answered as you can in the 15 days of spring. The most obvious one is who is gonna be the quarterback. I'm excited to watch the battle.

"When I left the office late (Tuesday) night, a couple of them were in there watching film. I think that shows you these guys are very excited to learn. The competition is gonna make them better, raise their level.

"When all is said and done, the one we decide on is the one the offense is gonna have to revolve around. Not that the quarterback has to make all the plays. What the offensive coaches have seen in the winter program is we have some athleticism, so the quarterback's not gonna have to do it all. But they're gonna have to manage the game.

"We all want to know the starter. Jacob Charest is a guy that has some experience. Nathan Scheelhaase has been around here a year and gave the defensive scout team fits last year and did a great job. You could see that competitiveness come out in him yesterday, and it was good to see.

"And Chandler Whitmer has really been a pleasant surprise. I did a retake watching him throw the ball yesterday. Unbelieveable accuracy, a quick release. I think coming in in January is really gonna benefit him and put him right in the thick of things."

The offense has a number of established players returning to their normal positions, while the defense is in a state of flux as new job descriptions at some positions require a new evaluation of individual skills.

"On both sides of the football, we need to make sure we get people in the right positions. Offense is pretty well set. Everyone knows who the offensive linemen are gonna be for the most part. Other than Andrew Carter, who we're looking at as a tight end, the offense is pretty well set.

"Defensively, we have a few changes. Justin Staples is now a rush guy. He had a great offseason, unbelieveable numbers in the weight room. The way he was looking in the 6:00am's, I'm very impressed with him. He's gotten bigger, and he was competing. He's done well in school. He's done an exceptional job in all phases. I hope it carries over to the field."

The Illini now have one position designated as a defensive end, while the player on the other side of the line may be a defensive lineman at times and a linebacker at times.

"We're taking a look at Michael Buchanan at our Bandit position, kind of a rush guy, a drop guy, a blitz guy. Michael is a guy that plays a lot bigger than he looks. I think he's got a chance to have a lot of success there, as is Nate Palmer. Moving those guys has thinned out the inside linebacker positions, but we want to put the best players on the field."

Zook explained that Clay Nurse will be backed by Staples at defensive end. Nate Bussey, Ashante Williams and walkon Nattiel Perkins are now considered SAM linebackers, which is a linebacker/safety hybrid along the lines of a strong nickel back. Dustin Jefferson backs up Buchanan and Palmer at Bandit.

Veterans Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington continue to operate at inside linebackers, along with Evan Frierson and Aaron Gress. But Zook was happiest about the presence of Martez Wilson, who is going through all but contact drills this spring on the inside.

"It was exciting to have Martez (Wilson) back out there. He was in a red jersey, but he was flying around. And the leadership he showed, he picked up right where he left off. He'll be involved in all things except scrimmages.

"We're going to have to slow him down out there. He was running around out there and running into people. I think the no-contact jersey is a precautionary thing. It's great to see him back there, but the other defensive guys are happy to see him back. I think he'll be the leader again."

Zook reminded how badly the Illini needed their recognized leader last year after Wilson was felled by his neck surgery.

"Martez is one of those guys who is vocal, but he also did it on the field. When you get into tough situations, you look to those guys you can count on. When Martez went out last year..."

Zook said Joelil Thrash is being tried at safety. He and JC transfer Trulon Henry are joining a mix that includes Supo Sanni, Walt Aikens and Travon Bellamy in competition for the two safety spots.

Zook said that two other upperclassmen besides Wilson have shown leadership during the winter and early spring.

"Two guys who had great offseasons and showed great leadership were Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse. They have really stepped it up. Clay being a senior has been around here a long time. And Corey Liuget off the field has done a great job."

Zook was asked about Justin Green. The Louisville sophomore received only sporadic playing time last fall but has vast potential as part of a stacked running back corps.

"Justin's a guy that has good hands, he can run. He brings a different gear to the game. He's physical, he's a strong guy. Justin Green can fly."

However, Zook was equally willing to brag about his other backs.

"Mikel (Leshoure) has done a great job. Mikel's done some really good things. But Jason Ford is a pretty good player. Both Jason and Mikel have lost weight. Jason is a big solid guy. I'd say he has 10% body fat, which is not bad for his body type.

"Bud Golden is gonna surprise some people. I was watching Troy Pollard. We all know Troy's got great hands out of the backfield, and he's got a little hitch in his giddayup. I don't think you can have too many running backs. Those guys have a tendency to attract a lot of attention."

Zook said a different coach will be in charge of each of the six special teams, a departure from previous years.

"We're gonna split up the special teams, and a lot of the coaches are gonna be involved. In fact, Coach Petrino came to me and wants to be involved in the kickoff team. It's a little bit unusual for the offensive coordinator to want to be involved, but that's his personality. Everybody will have a hand in it, and we'll piece that together as we go through the spring."

Experience at punter with Anthony Santella and placekicker with Derek Dimke and Matt Eller is a good starting point. However, a new long snapper must be developed.

"On special teams, we have two kickers and our punter back. Zak Pedersen is our heir apparent long snapper. He traveled to every game last year and did a nice job (Tuesday). Right now we don't have a backup for him. We have a couple guys coming in for the fall."

Zook was asked about the pressures involved for a head coach and staff who's futures depend on an improved product. He handled the tough question in a straight-forward manner.

"These guys understand it's a pressure business. That's what you want. You want there to be interest in your program. Pressure is a part of it. The higher level you go up, the more pressure there is. I don't feel any more pressure than I felt when I first came here.

"I like where we're at right now. I like this coaching staff, I like the attitude of the players. There've been a lot of guys in that situation before. If they haven't, they probably will. Some of the best ones."

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