Zook’s fourth season faces high expectations

By Alex Symonds

The Illinois spring football season started with a deep breath and a sigh of relief from head coach Ron Zook, along with a feeling of disbelief that Wednesday’s practice will mark the start of his fourth season as the head man for the Fighting Illini.

The Orange and Blue will face the highest expectations it has seen in recent years, following its first bowl berth since 2001, and a victory against then No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus last season. However, after the Rose Bowl season, the Illini hope to sustain their recent success.

“Everyone is predicting that the University of Illinois will come back down to earth this year and (last season) was kind of a fluke, it was a hit-and-miss, and honestly, as a coaching staff, we take that as a challenge,” Zook said.

The Illini will partake in 14 practices this spring including an April 12 scrimmage at Lemont High School in Lemont, Ill., alma mater of freshman offensive lineman Graham Pocic. The spring season concludes with the annual spring game at Memorial Stadium on April 19.

Speaking in front of the media for the first time since National Signing Day in February, Zook stressed that his players need to realize the success of last season was not something that just happened, but rather a process of working in practice and a rebuilding that transformed a two-win team into a nine-win BCS participant.

“Sometimes it’s hard if people are telling (the players), ‘Gosh, you guys have had a great year and things are going well,'” Zook said. “And as I said, there were a lot of great things last year. And I’m happy for the Illini nation, and I’m happy for the University of Illinois, but still, we have to remember we’ve still got some work to do.”

Illinois will be somewhat shorthanded this spring season as Zook announced that five players – defensive end Jerry Brown, wide receiver Brian Gamble, cornerback Marcus “Miami” Thomas and offensive linemen Mark Jackson and Brandon Jordan – will not be participating in drills in order to concentrate on academics. Others limited in spring drills due to medical reasons include wide receiver Arrelious Benn (shoulder), running back Troy Pollard (knee), defensive back Travon Bellamy (both shoulders) and defensive lineman D’Angelo McCray (knee).

Zook is hopeful that all four limited players should be running and participating in non-contact drills by the end of the spring.

The other major change is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Orange and Blue will have to replace five starters, including consensus All-American middle linebacker J Leman. Replacing Leman in the heart of the defense will be junior Brit Miller, who started as the strong-side linebacker the last two seasons.

However, Miller said he is not too worried about moving to the middle, where he was a starter his freshman season.

“I’ve taken a lot of reps in practice and gametime reps are hard to duplicate,” Miller said. “But I think responsibility-wise I know what’s going on with the defense.”

Spring drills begin 4 p.m. Wednesday at Memorial Stadium practice fields depending on weather conditions.