Zook Pleased With Illini Spring Progress

Fighting Illini football coach Ron Zook met the media Tuesday. He talked about Saturday's Spring Game, the culmination of spring practice. And he discussed the progress of the team. He has seen signs the players are learning the system and beginning to play relaxed. And he really enjoys the quality of his assistant coaching staff.

Illinois coach Ron Zook is looking forward to this Saturday's Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, but he isn't certain yet of the format.

"We're not exactly sure how we're gonna do the spring game yet. We've tossed around some ideas, but we're not exactly sure what's the best way to do it.

"We've done it best against the rest, we've split up the teams, we've done offense vs. defense with a scoring system for the defense. A little bit will depend on whether we stay healthy the rest of this week. We'll come to a conclusion sometime."

Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino have different priorities regarding whether to let the quarterbacks don red jerseys for the scrimmage. Petrino prefers to see them under duress while Zook wants to keep them healthy for fall. But a compromise acceptable to both parties will be reached.

"My first guess is the quarterbacks will not be live. They've all taken some shots, and I'm not out to prove who's tougher."

Zook seems to be more relaxed this spring than usual. He says a big part of it is the quality of his assistants. There were many uncertainties going into spring ball as to how six new coaches would perform and mesh with the rest of the staff. Zook considers it a ringing success.

"That's the biggest change for me. It's been a breath of fresh air. I'm excited because the coaches have not only demanded, they've taught. Coaching is teaching, and your best coaches are your best teachers."

Perhaps best of all, the coaches have gotten results from a disciplined approach. It is one thing to be insistent, it is another to gain the respect of the team so they will willingly follow their instructors.

"If there's one thing that has stood out to me this spring, it is the demanding part. When we demand something, we're getting it. Maybe that's one of the issues we weren't getting before. When we say we have to get something done, we're holding them to the fire. That's what's important.

"The relationship between the players and the coaches, it's been a lot of fun this spring. I was laughing with the receivers yesterday and one of them said, 'Where did you get that guy?' They love the way they're being coached. They're demanded to do things.

"They're being demanded to do it on both sides of the ball, and it's been a breath of fresh air to me. I hope to continue to say the same thing over and over again. They've bought in, the coaches have bought in. The coaches have done a great job.

"Things just kind of seem like we've all been together. I think a lot of that has to do with the time we take to go over every little detail. But also they know what we're trying to get accomplished, what's expected. On both sides of the ball, you've got guys that have worked together, which is a key.

"I'm very pleased with the attitude of the guys. When there's a line drawn in the sand now, this is the way it's gonna be. They're buying in and trying to get done what they need to get done.

"We're gonna need to continue to work hard these next four practices. When you've only got 15 practices, you've got to get as much done as you possibly can. Hopefully, we'll have another good week."

New systems are being installed on offense and defense, and it is taking time for the players to become comfortable and sure of themselves. Zook believes they are beginning to relax and play with confidence.

"Offensively, we're doing a lot of different things. There are things that are very similar to what we've done in the past. There are some new things. One of the big things obviously is being in the huddle. But that doesn't mean we'll huddle all the time.

"The last week on both sides of the football, I've kind of noticed that the fog is beginning to clear a little bit. I thought both first groups last Saturday and really last Wednesday you could tell they're beginning to feel good about what's going on. There was less thinking and more reacting. That's something the coaches have to do to get them in position where they do feel comfortable.

"Things are going in on both sides of the football, more than you'll ever go into a game with. So there's a lot of confusion. But as they catch on, it will get a lot smoother. The last two scrimmages, the muddle is beginning to clear, and they are beginning to play faster."

It is hard to evaluate Illini improvement in the spring because they go against each other. Like Zook says, success on one side of the ball may mean improvement there, or it could be a sign of weakness on the other side of the ball. But he thinks the defense is improving.

"The one thing we've done defensively is, we've got a lot more turnovers than we've seen in the past. It's good for the defense. Obviously, the offense has got to take care of the football. We can't have turnovers. It's kind of a Catch-22. You'd like to see a lot of turnovers for the defense, but you don't want to see turnovers for the offense. But I think we're progressing well."

Running back Mikel Leshoure begged out of last Saturday's scrimmage with a sore ankle, but he practiced Tuesday without complications. Leshoure has significant competition at the position, even with Justin Green sitting out with a broken ankle.

"Mikel's fine. He was fine Saturday. There isn't a running back that doesn't have some sore spots. Usually they have a tendency to attract a lot of attention.

"Mikel's had a good spring. He's done a nice job. So has Jason (Ford). I think Jason kind of showed Saturday he was willing to step up. There were times when Troy Pollard was back. And Bud Golden has showed some signs. They've had a lot of reps, and they'll be fine. It's more of an experience thing. They've just got to play."

Some positions on the team boast experience and depth, while others are looking for younger players to rise to the surface. Zook enjoys the challenge of developing talent.

"We're solid at a lot of positions. Like everyone else, there are some need positions where guys are gonna have to step up. That's one of the exciting things about the spring."

Zook feels the Illini are meeting the goals established for spring ball. Once they know player strengths, they can mold the offense and defense to suit personnel.

"The biggest thing we wanted to have coming out of spring is to have both sides know the systems, what we're trying to do. It's important for the coaches to have a good feel for what the players do.

"I reserved my thoughts about the players until recently because I wanted them to make their own decisions, their own feelings. We talk about personnel all the time. I think that's the biggest thing, knowing what your guys can do.

Coaching is putting players in position to be successful and then demanding that they are successful. Your system has to be flexible enough to fit what your players do best."

The Spring Game begins at 1:00pm. Fans are asked to sit on the East side of Memorial Stadium. The scrimmage is free.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories