Home > Illinois football > Zook: Stability will help Illini football maintain momentum

Zook: Stability will help Illini football maintain momentum

CHAMPAIGN – A bowl victory hasn’t slowed down Illinois coach Ron Zook’s word-a-millisecond delivery, but the coach certainly had a calm about him following the Illini’s first spring practice.

“I was worried about taking a snap the first day last year,” Zook said. “Those are things you don’t have to worry about (now).”

For the first time since 2000, Illinois started spring practice coming off a bowl victory, a 38-14 rout of Baylor in the Texas Bowl. And for the first time since an unlikely appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl, Zook doesn’t appear on the hot seat.

There’s only one new face on Zook’s staff – secondary coach Mike Gillhamer fills the position vacated by former linebackers coach Dan Disch – following an almost complete staff overhaul a year ago.

Zook used the word stability several times to describe his team – which would have received sarcastic chuckles the last few years – during Tuesday’s press conference, adding that less turnover should help the Illini maintain momentum off the Texas Bowl win.

“The coaches know the players, the players know the coaches,” Zook said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you know the things the players can do well, do best.

“I think because of the stability, it allows you to expand on the things you’ve done well and either fix or get away from the things that maybe didn’t go quite as well.”

With coordinators Paul Petrino – who received a $50,000 raise to up his salary to $525,000 this year after leading a record-setting offense last season – and Vic Koenning helping the playcalling, Zook finally might have the right mix.

But after following a 9-4 season in 2007 with a 5-7, bowl-less 2008 season, Zook needs to see more progress to believe it.

“Our team understands that it’s going to be very important that we build on where we finished,” Zook said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t improve in all three phases: offensively, defensively and special teams.”

 

Day 1 Notes:

–         The Illini switched to morning practices – Tuesday’s session started at 7 a.m. and Thursday’s will start at 8 a.m. – this spring, a trend that may continue into the fall. Zook said more coaches across the nation are switching to morning practice, adding that some coaches believe it helps academics. Most college students might not like the early wake-up call, but Zook said some players like having their afternoons free of football. “We’re not starting that early, Zook said,

–         CRAIG WILSON, an offensive lineman last season as a junior, moved across the line of scrimmage and will play defensive tackle in his final year of eligibility. Zook said he wanted to move the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Harvey native to defense last year but was “talked out of it by the offensive guys.” Zook likes Wilson’s NFL size and said the senior will play a significant role in the defensive line rotation in the fall.

–         Zook said the main focus of the offense this spring is to improve the passing game. Sophomore quarterback NATHAN SCHEELHAASE improved as the season progressed during his first year as a starter, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,044 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception over the last seven games. Zook wants to see his receivers turn short completions into long after-the-catch gains, a la the New England Patriots.

–         Scheelhaase will be without leading receiver A.J. JENKINS (cracked wrist) and high-ceiling sophomore DARIUS MILLINES (stress fracture in foot) for the spring, allowing sophomores SPENCER HARRIS and RYAN LANKFORD to play even bigger roles in the offense. Senior FRED SYKES and redshirt freshmen FRITZ ROCK and ANTHONY WILLIAMS (who missed Tuesday’s practice due to academic issues, Zook said) also will compete for playing time in the rotation.

–         A few more Illini were on the sidelines on Tuesday. Safety SUPO SANNI, recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon last season, went through individual workouts but sat during team drills. Fullback ZACH BECKER, recovering from a foot injury, worked on a bike, while safety STEVE HULL spent his morning on the StairMaster. Hull sprained an ankle playing a pickup basketball game during spring break, “which he was told not to do,” Zook said.

 

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