Column: Promising season ahead for Zook?

By Troy Murray

All eyes were on the freshmen Saturday against Eastern Illinois – all nine of them that received at least some playing time. Would they live up to all the hype and would the three most heralded freshmen – quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams, tight end Jeff Cumberland, and defensive back Vontae Davis – deliver?

All three made rookie mistakes, but Davis will make the biggest impact on the team this season. Juice showed the crowd why he was a top five recruit during his first official snaps in the second quarter, leading the Illini on a 7-play 81-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard Rashard Mendenhall score.

A simple 50-yard overthrow falling down off his back leg makes his potential pretty evident – few college quarterbacks can make a broken play look so impressive. But several times in the drive, Juice put his head down and ran with the ball when receivers were open down the field. His biggest mistake came in the middle of his second drive when he fumbled after taking off on the ground.

“I thought Juice did well,” Zook said. “Every snap he takes, he’ll get better and better. I told him, ‘The only way you’ll get better is if you play.'”

And that’s part of being a quarterback at a Big Ten school – the learning process. The four years he spent at Chicago Vocational did not prepare him to come to a school with a playbook the size of Indiana basketball coach Kelvin Sampson’s rap sheet.

It will take Williams a year or two to get the system down and learn when to throw and when to run with it, but when he does he has all the potential in the world to become a star.

The quarterback position is notoriously known to be the hardest position to learn as a freshman. The coaching staff, therefore, is grooming Juice to make an impact down the road.

Davis, though, can make an impact now, and he showed that by intercepting a pass in the fourth quarter.

Don’t get me wrong, Davis made some rookie mistakes, like getting burned twice, but that’s really just part of being a defensive back.

“You show me a great corner and I’ll show you a guy that is going to take chances,” Zook said. “(Davis) will learn from that. He had to learn to keep his eyes on his man and that’s what he did when he was able to get the interception.”

“You can tell (Davis) is a very talented guy,” he said. “Some of the stuff he does you see on Sunday.”

Quarterback Watch

First-string quarterback Tim Brasic is giving Juice a run for his money. Brasic obviously took all the talk of the incoming freshman to heart. An offseason of hard work seems to have paid off after going 13-for-17 for 149 yards, good enough for a 150.1 quarterback rating against Eastern Illinois, one of the best defenses in I-AA in 2005.

It might not look like he compiled many yards on the day, but his quarterback rating ranks him 36th in the nation, fourth best among Big Ten quarterbacks and 37 spots ahead of Heisman Trophy hopeful Brady Quinn. That’s a pretty telling statistic for someone battling to keep his job. Until the season is officially down the toilet, the starting job is Brasic’s to lose.

If the three-headed running attack of Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey, and Rashard Mendenhall can consistently gain more than 200 yards per game on the ground, all Illinois really needs is an efficient quarterback to manage the game clock, take care of the ball and hit the open man – that’s exactly what Brasic gave the Illini in game one.

Let’s just hope he keeps it up.

Troy Murray is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]