SCOUTING REPORT: Illinois slowly progressing

Illinois has had a rough go of it in recent times. The excitement for Illinois football has been high with the hiring of Head Ron Zook last year, but the expected turnaround has been slow and painful at best.

EAST LANSING - Illinois has had a rough go of it in recent times. The excitement for Illinois football has been high with the hiring of Head Ron Zook last year, but the expected turnaround has been slow and painful at best. In fact, if this fighting Illini football team were a car, someone would have called MTV's show "Pimp My Ride" by now and attempted a complete overhaul.

Zook does have his strengths. He has a tireless work ethic, and is a superb recruiter. He also is an emotional leader and fiery guy with a great desire to win. Now the downside, those positive qualities have not turned into the on field results everyone has expected at both Illinois, and at Florida, where the Gators have talent galore.

Zook tasted early success in his coaching career, becoming the defensive cordinator at Cincinnati as early as 1981 in a roller coaster ride of becoming a cordinator at one school, only to follow that up with a defensive backfield position at another school or vice versa.

It hasn't been easy for Zook, at one point he was demoted from the secondary coach at Florida (when Steve Spurrier was the head man) to the special teams coach. This move came as the result of several crucial blown coverages. Spurrier denied that was the reason for the move at the time, but this writer was living in Gainesville at the time and that was the clear consensus.

Not a man to keep down very long, he parlayed his strengths as a special teams guru into a professional job with the Pittsburgh Steelers as their special teams coach. He moved back into a defensive backfield position with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1999, and then next year landed the defensive cordinator spot for the New Orlean Saints, before becoming the Florida Gator head man in 2002.

His overall record at Florida was 23-14 in three years, which is not a bad start at many schools, but at Florida, where there is an abundance of talent, facilities, and resources, it was considered underachieving.

However, you have to admire a man like Zook, who, as a player, walked onto a Miami of Ohio football team after receiving no offers out of college, and becoming team captain three years later. He simply has persistence that many don't have although those qualities have not resulted in expected wins as a head coach.

Zook's first year as head coach started well when he won the first two games before the wheels spun off the wagon and he dropped his last nine games. In fact, it was a season where Illinois struggled just to compete, scoring an average of only 17-points a game while giving up 39.9 points per game.

This included the 61-14 spanking the Spartans put on them that saw MSU set a Memorial Stadium record with 705-yards, and Stanton setting an MSU record with five touchdown passes in the game. In fact, even bottom feeder Indiana blew them out during a rough year. In the end, when the dust settled to the ground, defensive cordinator Mike Mallory was let go. For a team that won the Big Ten title outright just five years ago, the free fall has come hard and fast.

This year, once again filled with the optimism of a new year and led by the passionate Zook, they opened with a victory over Eastern Illinois by the score of 42-17 with running backs Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendall each scoring two touchdowns. Of course, Eastern Illinois is a Division 1-AA school.

The following week, Illinois quickly came back to earth as they traveled to Rutgers and promptly had their lunch handed to them in an embarassing 33-0 pasting, handing the fighting Illini their fifteenth consecutive road loss. In fact, in their last three road losses, they have been outscored by a margin of 110-5. The Illini effort in futility was evident in that they could only muster 126-yards of total offense, and could not move pass the Scarlet Knights 46-yard line.

The following week they actually were favored by three points over another struggling team, the Syracuse Orangemen and were defeated.

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