Camp Rantoul: "It's Wall-To-Wall Ball"

Fighting Illini football coach Ron Zook met the media Sunday. He shared what he has seen the first three days of camp and what lies ahead as the team moves to Camp Rantoul. He seems genuinely excited about his team, but he said nothing to raise false hopes among the fandom. There may be reason for optimism, but fans must decide that for themselves.

Illinois coach Ron Zook was conspicuous with what he didn't say Sunday, more than what he did say as he met the media for the first time. He did not say how much bigger, stronger, and faster the team was. He did not say it is better than past teams. He did not try to raise expectations for a fandom intolerant of it. He offered no predictions.

Instead, he talked about his team. The 2010 Illini football team has renewed optimism and has put the previous season behind it. There are six new coaches, and the old guard of players has graduated. Focus will remain on what the Illini have, not what they don't have.

Zook was pleased with the first three practices held on the UI campus. Their next practice is Monday afternoon at Camp Rantoul.

"We've had three really good days here. I think our guys are excited about going to Rantoul and looking forward to it. The older guys have been telling the younger guys about it. C.J. (Chris James) and those guys are fired up to go, they really are. It's gonna be a fun camp, and we're gonna get a lot of work done. We'll just continue on with what we've done the first three practices."

Zook loves taking his team to Camp Rantoul.

"There's no distractions. It's wall-to-wall ball. You talk about building chemistry. There's nothing you can do at camp to make it easy. It's a lot of time, it's a lot of mental toughness. It's not like it used to be when Coach (Bear) Bryant was going to Alabama. It's a lot different than that.

"At Rantoul, everything's there, there's no distractions. It's all football. When we come back here, our fields are all fresh and green. They can get work done around here. There's no one in the way. Plus it's so close, if something happens and you do have to use the turf, you could do it. Just jump on a bus and come back."

Camp Rantoul is always greeted by the onset of hot temperatures, and this year will be the hottest since 2007.

"When someone had told me a week or so ago we might be in for a little cool spell, I told them, 'Don't worry. When we go to Camp Rantoul it will heat up.' It looks like that will happen. It's summer, and that's part of it."

However, Zook and his staff will take precautions to prevent extreme heat-related problems. The predicted temperature for the first day in pads is 97 with high humidity. Zook won't risk the health of his team.

"Since I heard the weather report last night, we might have to move practice Tuesday if it's gonna be a heat thing. Back in the day, they just get tough and go. But we don't do that quite as much now.

"The whole thing is you've got to keep your players cool. Tuesday will be the first day in pads, and it's supposed to be the hot day. We monitor their weight every practice. So and so lost this much weight.

"The key is, they've got to be able to get that weight back before they go back out on the field. Every practice, even during two-a-days, we never go out on the practice field without at least the opportunity to have two meals.

"In two-a-days, we won't have them go right to lunch after the first practice. If they drink a whole bunch, then they don't feel like eating. We'll meet to have them kind of settle down. We haven't had a big problem with weight.

"When the wet ball, the temperature it actually feels like, reaches 100, that's when you've got to be a little bit careful. Dr. (Jeff) Kyrouac gets involved. That's a serious thing now. I'm all for being tough, but I'm not gonna get into that."

Hopefully, there will be few disruptions for a young team in need of quality practices. Up to now, it appears the transition to new offenses and defenses has gone well, and the players have bonded. It is as good as can be expected given the amount of change.

"So far, it's been great. It's been super. The transition was so smooth. A lot of it had to do with how the players are, and a lot of it had to do with how the coaches are.

"When you've got a lot of new coaches, a big part of getting on the same page is the coaches getting on the same page. For example, Chip (Long) knows exactly how Paul thinks. There's never gonna be something where Chip says something and Paul (Petrino) changes it. Or Jeff (Brohm), they're all the same.

"DeAndre (Smith) has been great. With Joe (Gilbert), the terminology is much like it was in the past. I think it's very very big. If all the coaches are going the same direction, it's a lot easier to get all the players going the same direction. And it's the same on the defensive side of the ball."

As became obvious in 2009, a team can appear to have good chemistry and good leadership in fall practice. It is when the season begins and problems arise that the true mettle of a team comes out.

"I think you really see that when you get into the heat of the battle. That's when you're really gonna know where the chemistry is. Right now, I'd have to give it an A+, but we'll have to see when we're in the heat of the battle.

"I think there's some very talented guys on the football team. Talent is important, but it's also the attitude. It's got to be an unselfish football team, it's got to be a player-driven team. So far, that's what they've shown us."

That means leaders must continue their leadership when they play badly and their NFL hopes are going down the drain. If the young ones on the team continue to get encouragement and support regardless, they can rise up and overcome adversity. If the leaders go their separate ways, that is impossible.

Someone noticed a team attitude that reminded of the 2007 Rose Bowl year. Certainly, the team is tired of losing and hungry to prove people wrong. Certainly, both teams are filled with unknown players who want to make their marks. Zook remains cautious.

"I don't know if it's a similar feeling. I knew we were better than we were being projected. I felt we were a better team than what our previous two years record indicated. Still, it's about winning games and how you're gonna handle adversity the first go around."

Zook was asked whether there were specific problem areas that concerned him. After some thought, he gave a couple possibilities.

"One question is the quarterback position, being new. That first play we go out there, that's gonna be Nathan (Scheelhaase's) first snap. It'll be important how we handle that. I think it's important too that the coaches in all three phases do the things that our players are comfortable with."

While quarterback must be a concern, that doesn't mean Zook is without reason for optimism.

"I can't want to see how the quarterbacks do in the heat of the battle. I was working out this morning, and there was Nathan working out with Lou (Hernandez, strength coach).

"I kind of thought Lou brought him in to work out this morning. But what happened, Nathan started to cramp up yesterday and didn't get his lift in. Come to find out, Nathan texted Lou last night and told him he had to do his lift. So he had Lou in there this morning. When you've got guys like that, it's a good thing."

Zook and Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning have made changes in the defense, increasing the aggressiveness of the unit. Zook hopes the team performs like a unit and makes plays when needed.

"The way we're attacking people, I feel pretty good about it. I think we've got some guys who can make some plays. It's important we go out there and make plays."

Special teams has been a sore spot in past seasons. Experienced placekickers and an experienced punter return, but making all 11 players on each of the six teams play at a peak level requires a group effort.

"Of course, I'm going to be involved with all of it. What we've done this year is each coach is going to be involved. For example, Coach (Ron) West and I have the punt team, and Coach Smith has the kickoff return.

"Coach West and myself will be involved with the kickoff team. Coach (Paul) Petrino wants the kickoff returners. Coach Brohm wants the punt returners. Coach Chip Long wants to jump in there. When you've got a lot of guys with ownership in it, it means a little something."

The head coach has stated previously he feels his entering freshman class is better than advertised, and his feelings on that subject haven't changed since practice began.

"I learned a long time ago, you never get too high or too low too early. But I think there's gonna be guys, when all is said and done, the recruiting gurus will look back and say they made a mistake. I think we all feel pretty good about where we are."

Some rate teams on the basis of their NFL-level talent. Since this team lacks known superstars, Zook was asked whether there were any NFL guys on the team. While he didn't exaggerate things by providing names and a sales pitch, he quietly shared a positive perspective on the subject.

"I think you've got a couple linebackers who should be pretty good. We have a couple defensive backs who should be pretty good. We have a defensive end who has a chance to be pretty good, and we have a couple running backs who have a chance to be pretty good. I think you've got a couple receivers who've got a chance to be pretty good."

Zook will let his team do its talking on the field. But Camp Rantoul is next, with the season to follow in four weeks.

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