Scrimmage to cap off spring season

By Courtney Linehan

Illinois football will complete its spring workout schedule with the annual spring game tomorrow at Memorial Stadium. The game, scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m., will feature a scrimmage situation pitting the Illini against each other and showcasing the improvements the team has made since beginning spring practice one month ago.

“I believe we’ve improved offensively and defensively,” safety Kevin Mitchell said. “You can see people have grown into their roles.”

Head coach Ron Zook has emphasized throughout the spring that he is amazed at the progress the team has made since this time last year. With a full season of experience working with the new coaches and new systems, the players have adjusted to changing systems and increased demands, Zook said.

“The amount of football that we have in is a lot more than it was last year,” Zook said. “Everybody’s on the same page – the coaching staff, the players – in terms of what we expect. It’s been a lot smoother and, consequently, we’ve gotten a lot more work done.”

Zook expects the spring game to showcase a much-improved defense and an offense that has made significant progress despite the lack of a quarterbacks coach. With offensive coordinator Mike Locksley helping out with the quarterbacks and a graduate assistant helping Locksley handle the tight ends, things have continued moving smoothly.

“I told (athletic director Ron) Guenther, I’m not in any hurry,” Zook said of hiring a new assistant. “I think the most important thing is to get the best fit.”

Illinois’ defense has adjusted to new defensive coordinator Vince Okruch. Okruch was faced with learning and implementing Illinois’ existing system, so that players would not have to endure a third schematic overhaul in as many years.

“Vince has done everything that I thought he would in terms of coming in, learning our package. I’ve been very, very happy with the way that’s going,” Zook said. “We’ve made great improvement on defense, as we should. We’ve just got to continue to improve there.”

So far though, the players and coaches agree that a summer of workouts and intense training, surviving the 2005 season and continuing to train and condition through the winter has brought the team’s athleticism up a notch. Next fall, they say, will be the time to put it all together.

“This season, I think it’s going to be different,” running back Pierre Thomas said. “We’re out there in spring ball running faster, flying to the ball. We’re really starting to come together as a team.”