Team practices in full pads

The Illinois football team stretches after practice on Saturday outside Memorial Stadium. Adam Babcock

The Illinois football team stretches after practice on Saturday outside Memorial Stadium. Adam Babcock

By Courtney Linehan

With recruits, high school coaches and fans in attendance for the third practice session of the spring, the Illinois football team brought out the full pads during Saturday’s workout. The result earned mixed reviews from head coach Ron Zook, who said the players did well – but didn’t quite push themselves as much as he’d like to see.

“It was not bad, it was really a pretty good practice, but we can be better,” Zook said. “We’re at the point where we need to stress to be as good as we can be all the time.”

Zook said the team has progressed as far in three days this spring as it did in the entire 15-session warm up one year ago. He said the challenge now is to prevent the players from sitting at that plateau, to train them to continue striving for improvement. Practice concluded with a long session of sprints, which the coach hopes helped get his message across.

“These guys are in as good a shape as they’ve ever been in their lives, there’s no question about that,” Zook said. “What happens is the expectation is that we’re going to go out, we’re going to go through practice and just get through it. As far as we’ve got to go, we can’t do that. In my mind the game’s tomorrow. It’s not in September; it’s tomorrow.”

Offense on the upswing

While quarterback Tim Brasic watched practice in sweats on the sidelines, the offense made significant progress through Saturday’s practice. Zook said the offense implemented enough formations, options, and “things that have a lot of thinking involved” that they kept the defense on its toes. Zook also said the young offensive line looked sharper and showed improvement in one-on-one drills.

“That’s something that we’re going to have to continue to improve on; it’s something that we need,” Zook said. “It’s close contact, usually you don’t get many injuries there. It’s a drill where the defense has got to learn to separate and the offense has to accelerate their feet and just keep doing it.”

Baby Gators unfamiliar to Zook

With post-practice running, stretching and interviews bumping into the start of Saturday’s Final Four game between George Mason and Florida, Zook did not have a chance to catch the first part of his former school’s victory. The Illini football coach said he has a good relationship with the Gators’ basketball staff, but was surprised at how unfamiliar the players were.

“There’s no one on the team I know, and I’ve only been gone a year,” Zook said. “What that tells me is that they’re winning with a young team. And we’re going to be a young team.”