The Illinois football team needed to learn new schemes offensively and defensively in the spring. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino and Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning were hired to bring new life to the program. It took awhile for the players to catch on to everything, but they responded positively.
Illini players were ready for change. The old ways were no longer working, for whatever reasons. Bringing in new ideas gave everyone a new lease on life. Illini coach Ron Zook was excited about how well spring ball went.
"I think it went excellent. Two things. One, because of the coaches and the way they are. They were into what we were gonna do. And the players were receptive. They didn't say this isn't the way we did it, this is the way we're doing it now. It probably was as smooth as it possibly could have been."
It takes some teams a year or more to learn a new system, but both Petrino and Koenning made major headway in the spring. They couldn't install everything they wanted in just 15 practices, but they got most of it established. And Illini players appeared to perform the new styles as well as could be expected.
One complaint many had last year was the inability of the defense to respond as one unit. There was a lack of togetherness and discipline. Koenning pushed discipline on his defenders in the spring, and they were willing to go the extra mile to gang tackle and put team ahead of self.
Koenning's coaching techniques led some to wonder if the previous defensive coaches failed in some manner. Zook refuses to blame anyone from previous teams, but he acknowledges the need for an upgrade.
"I don't want to get into if you had done this or you had done that. A lot of these same guys went to the Rose Bowl. As a coaching staff, we didn't demand it to get done. Whether it be because the coaches didn't get it done or players didn't get it done, we didn't get it done."
Zook can't do everything himself. He needs assistants he can trust to help him get the players to respond consistently and forcefully.
"There was discipline all along. The problem was that I didn't want to be the one to have to do it. It needs to be the coaches that have to do it. Maybe that's why we had to make changes."
Zook is famous for being a players' coach. He remembers when he was a player, and he empathizes with player needs. He knows everyone makes mistakes, and he is willing to give them chances to correct their mistakes and mature. He is loved by his players because they know he has their backs.
However, sometimes a caring parent can find his children taking advantage of a generous heart. The same is true of 105 football players toward their head coach. Perhaps some Illini players have been less focused simply because they felt they wouldn't be punished severely for it.
"I think they will, just like your own children will. On the same token, knock on wood we have a great group of kids."
Does that mean there are major discipline problems on the team? While a few players have fouled up academically or in their private lives over the years, Zook will gladly defend his program with any in the country.
"For the most part, we haven't been perfect by any stretch of the imagination and still have a long way to improve, but we've been able to stay out of trouble. They know the consequences. There is a line of discipline.
"I will refute anybody that thinks we don't have discipline in this program. We're as disciplined as any program in the United States of America."
Zook and his staff imparted strong discipline in 2008, but the team was still not able to duplicate it's 2007 season. Even if coach discipline is exactly the same every year, not all players respond the same to it, and not all teams have chemistry sufficient to go the extra mile for success.
"It comes down to everybody being on the same page. Whenever you lose that team concept, everybody for everybody and everybody for the same thing, (there are problems)."
The 2010 Illinois team appears to be hungry after two losing seasons. They have responded extremely well to the discipline imparted upon them. They are excited about the new systems in place and are ready to go to war. However, not everything has gone smoothly since spring.
Jacob Charest, the only quarterback with previous experience, decided to transfer to a school closer to his North Carolina home after a spring that saw him trailing Nathan Scheelhaase for a starting position. This puts the UI in the tenuous position of having only a redshirt freshman and two true freshmen quarterbacks on their roster. Zook is not shaken by this development.
"You see quarterbacks leave programs all the time, everywhere. Jacob I'm sure saw the writing on the wall. He didn't feel like he could compete, so if he doesn't want to be here we don't need him here."
The last week of spring ball, starting right tackle Corey Lewis was lost for the season with knee surgery. And Josh Brent, a starter at defensive tackle in 2009, failed to qualify academically. Both losses hurt, but again Zook has a philosophical outlook about it.
"You hate to lose Corey Lewis, but everything happens for a reason. Josh, same thing. If Josh is not gonna do what he has to do off the field, he's probably not gonna do what he has to do on the field. It's like my daughter always says, it's just the good Lord weeding out the things you don't need."
Can the Illini overcome these problems and have a successful season?
In the finale of this 9-part series, Zook provides Illini fans with a needed pep talk. Illinois players and coaches see the 2010 season as a new start, a chance to redeem themselves from the last two seasons. Zook encourages the fans to think the same way.