Chemistry, hard work turn around offense

Mike Locksley (left), Jacob Willis, Dere Hicks and Ian Thomas leave practice at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. on Dec. 29, 2007. Erica Magda

Mike Locksley (left), Jacob Willis, Dere Hicks and Ian Thomas leave practice at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. on Dec. 29, 2007. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky and Mike Theodore

PASADENA, Calif. – With only two practices remaining until its showdown with USC in the Rose Bowl, the Illinois football team is hard at work in finalizing their game plan on the field. But it’s been the camaraderie off the field that has led to the success on the gridiron this season.

Illinois achievements haven’t just been the result of stellar play from just one or two players, but instead the product of a mixture of hard working veterans who have played through rough times and young, wide-eyed players who came into the program believing they could help turnaround a program.

For the turnaround at Illinois to be a success, head coach Ron Zook needed his players to believe in his system and to “stay the course,” a phrase Zook used at nearly every practice during the rough patches the past two seasons.

“We’ve worked hard to get to this point and guys have dedicated themselves to this 100 percent the entire season and the seasons before that,” sophomore quarterback Juice Williams said. “We have a family-like environment around this team. Everyone is like a brother to everyone else and looks out for everyone. Having that brotherhood and that chemistry in the locker room and off the field helps when we get on the field and play.

“This is a moment in our lives we’ll never forget, and we wouldn’t have gotten here if we didn’t believe.”

The family environment created by Zook and his coaching wouldn’t have been possible without the team’s veteran players stepping in and taking the newcomers under their wings as they took the step to the next level of football.

“This has been a unique year in terms of how everyone has meshed together,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “The older guys have really stepped in and taken a liking to the younger guys, and they’ve also learned from the younger guys, too.”

On the offensive

The Illini offense ended the season in good rhythm, hitting their stride in the last four games of the season. But despite the time off since the final game since Northwestern, the Illini seem confident the lengthy lay off is not a detriment.

“It’s not going to hurt,” offensive lineman Akim Millington said. “I think if anything it’s just going to make us better in the sense that we’re a little fresher.

“We’ve had 41 days to prepare for this game so we’ll be OK.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley credited head coach Ron Zook’s planning for keeping the Illini focused during bowl preparation.

“We really went back and hit the basics and fundamentals,” Locksley said. “We were able to put most of the game plan implemented back in Champaign. Out here, it’s just a matter of tweaks and finishing it up.”

The Illini’s spread offense with the versatile Williams at the helm is being compared to Oregon’s system, which toppled USC earlier this season.

“It’s very similar to Oregon because it is a very difficult offense to manage from a defensive standpoint,” USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said.

“Certain players have to cover the quarterback, others have to cover the running backs and if we lose track of our assignments and aren’t technically sound, they’ll gas you,” Ellis said.

The Illini offense stayed true to their strengths during the nine-win season, but Locksley didn’t rule out some trickery for the Rose Bowl.

“I don’t foresee us going into a game full of tricks, but we’ll always have something in our sleeves to maybe manufacture a good play against a good defense,” Locksley said.

“I’m confident we’ll show up and play hard. It’s just a matter now of making sure we do the things to take care of the football to give ourselves a chance to win.”