When Big Ten Media Day comes upon us, it means one thing—college football season is right around the corner.
And for Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini, it means many questions are soon to be answered.
A team with a refurbished staff, a loss of many star players, and a head coach on the “hot seat” will have many obstacles to overcome in the upcoming year after last season’s disaster.
In Illinois’ 2009 campaign, the Illini went 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference games. The offense was productive, but their defense got picked apart, giving up 30.2 points per game. Unfortunately, the season ended on a 53-52 loss to the Fresno State Bulldogs.
From that point, they fired offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard, wide receivers coach Jim Pry, and special teams coach Mike Woodford.
Not only did they lose four coaches, but also they lost their top two players—quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn.
Now, they are in a rebuilding mode.
This offseason, Paul Petrino has taken over as offensive coordinator, Vic Koennig was appointed the new defensive coordinator, and Jeff Brohm has won the job as quarterbacks coach. DeAndre Smith is working as the running backs coach, Chip Long has taken over as tight ends coach, and Ron West is the new linebackers coach.
Also, the offense will now be a pro-style offense—compared to a spread offense that Zook has had since he took over. That change in offense will be lead by redshirt freshman QB Nathan Scheelhaase.
“I, like everyone else, am excited to be here,” said Zook at the 2010 Big Ten Media Day in Chicago. “Obviously at the University of Illinois we have a lot of new things going on and excitement. Got a new quarterback that I think everyone will enjoy watching. And we all want to see the progress that he's going to make and obviously new coaches.
“So we're excited to get going, looking forward to it. The attitude has been great. The transition was probably as smooth as it possibly could have ever been with the coaching changes.
“And I just, like everyone else, I'm looking forward to getting going. We start—come in Wednesday night and Thursday is our first practice.”
Next season will be Zook’s sixth season as head coach for the Illini, and it could also be his last if he does not get Illinois to a bowl game.
During his five-year tenure so far, he has a combined record of 44-53, taking Illinois to a Rose Bowl in 2007 but failing to make a bowl appearance the following two years.
Many consider him to be one of the top coaches on the “hot seat,” but he suggests he does not feel all the pressure people have put on him.
“No, I don't [feel the pressure], to be honest with you,” said Zook. “I think everyone that stands up here today has got pressure. Obviously, some of us have more than others. I think the thing that you try to do is you do the best you can do.
“I don't feel any more pressure. I'm excited. Looking forward to getting going.”
He also claims that his players have not been negatively affected by all the scrutiny he has been put under.
“The players—you know, you kind of circle the wagons and they stay close. As I said, I've been very, very impressed with the way they've been around this summer. Not necessarily working out, but just being around the offices, being around, watching tape, being around and saying, 'hey, coach, what's going on?' And it's been a lot of fun.
“But I, like everyone else, when you get new things, everyone's excited. And everyone wants to see what's going on. And I've been around Nathan Scheelhaase long enough now that I think at every level, whether it be college, the National Football League, or high school, a lot will have to do with your quarterback.
"And it's going to be important that our offensive staff, Coach [Paul] Petrino and the offensive coaches, that we keep as much pressure off him as we can.”
As mentioned earlier, the defense had major struggles last year.
They finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring defense (30.2 ppg) and total defense (403.2 ypg).
In hope of turning around the defense, Illinois demoted both of their co-defensive coordinators.
They went on to hire Vic Koenning, who currently had the co-defensive coordinator position at Kansas State.
Koenning is known well for dramatically improving defenses. At Kansas State, he improved its rushing defense from 112th to 16th last season. And during his four years at Clemson, the Tigers finished in the top 25 in scoring, total defense, and pass efficiency defense.
He has also brought in Ron West, who coached with him at Clemson, to help with the linebackers.
Zook understands that the defense needs to make some big strides in the upcoming season, or his hope of making a bowl game will be diminished, but he feels confident they have make the commitment to get improve.
“Defensively, once again, going back to the spring, I told our football team in the very last meeting that what was going to be important that we're a better football team when we start camp on Thursday than we were at the end of spring.
“And we can't be there as coaches. There’s one time we have the least amount of work in terms of football with your players. And I told them all, it was going to be important that you guys make yourselves better.
“And I know they've talked about and this is leadership and so forth, where they've had their own sessions out there all summer long. Many of them have told me it’s been the best summer they've had in terms of working on football.
“Usually I'm the last one to leave. I don't know how many times I've had to turn the video stuff off. They leave the projector on, which is good. It means they're there paying attention to it. So I think defensively, you know, we're doing some different things...But I'm excited about the way they've picked it up, and once again I think we're doing enough moving around that we'll get away with any lack of size in our front.”
One of the big reasons Illinois’ defense had so many troubles was the season-ending injury to star linebacker Martez Wilson.
After the season opener against Missouri, he felt discomfort in his neck, which led to the discovery of a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery.
This year, though, Wilson has been cleared to play alongside a more experienced defense with likes of Ian Thomas, Tavon Wilson, Corey Liuget, Clay Nurse, and Terry Hawthorne.
Zook addressed exactly how important that injury was last year, but how much of an impact he has already had on the players this offseason.
“Once again, Martez got hurt in the first game last year,” said Zook. “That was a big blow. He was, no question, the leader.
“He had a great, great spring. He had a great camp. He was playing as well as any Mike linebacker I've been around probably anywhere.
“And for him to get hurt in the first game, obviously, was a big, big blow. But he's back 100 percent.
“In fact, actually he went through spring. He didn't go through the contact. It was hard to keep him out of it because he was always trying to stick his face where he shouldn't stick it.
“But he's had no issues. He's been 100 percent all offseason. And I really felt like last year it was going to be his opportunity to show people that he had a chance to be the kind of player that we all felt like when we recruited.
“Here's a guy that didn't play a lot of linebacker in high school, and really kind of settled into that position as I said last year. Just got his final checkup last week, and got 100 percent clean bill of health and ready to go. And just being around him, once again, like I said earlier, sometimes when you take something away from them they realize how important it is to them and what it means to them.
“So he's not only had a great work ethic in terms of the weight room and practicing and so forth, but the leadership that he's brought. And you see him being around the players has been, it's good to have him back, I know that."
If you look at Illinois’ roster, it’s much more deep than what most people think.
At the quarterback position, they have Nathan Scheelhaase, one of the nation's most prized recruits two years ago. To back him up, you have another highly touted recruit, Chandler Whitmer.
At the running back position, they have Mikel LeShoure, who led college football in yards per rush last season. And behind him is Jason Ford, who is a strong runner that will punish anyone who underestimates him.
At the wide receiver position, they have Eddie McGee, Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins, and Jarred Fayson.
Then when you look at the defensive side, they have 6’4" 250 pound linebacker Martez Wilson, they have linebacker Ian Thomas who lead Illinois in tackles last season, they have two outstanding defensive backs in Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne, and they return most of their defensive line led by Clay Nurse and Corey Liuget.
But with such outstanding talent, Illinois has failed to succeed the past two years, and Ron Zook knows this season he has to prove he can not only recruit, but be a good coach as well.
“I don't think there's any question I have something to prove,” said Zook, who has failed to record a winning season since 2007. “I think that's why you're in this profession. It's about winning.
“And you have to win, and we have to go do that. But I don't know that we can do a whole lot more than what we've done right now. As I said, the coaching staff, the way they've gotten together, the way they've jelled, as I sit in there, I've been able to look at it a little bit differently. I've been able to step back and maybe not be quite as involved.
“It’s been kind of a relief as well. And when you can kind of give your suggestions and talk about things that maybe people have tried to do to us in the past or going to try to do to us, just let your players play.
“It goes back to, like I said earlier, I think probably on paper our football team is probably a better football team than it was two years ago. But that doesn't matter, it still goes back to you got to win games and that's the bottom line.”
Ron Zook has 12 games to prove that he can coach a team to success.
It all starts with a pivotal season opener on September 4 in Saint Louis against the Missouri Tigers.