Zook looks ahead at Big Ten Media Day

Illinois head football coach Ron Zook speaks at the Big Ten Conference football media day Thursday in Chicago. M. Spencer Green, The Associated Press

By Wes Anderson

CHICAGO – It was all too fitting that Ron Zook was the first to take the podium at Big Ten Media Day on Thursday. Unlike last year, when the downtrodden Illini were licking their wounds on the heels of a 2-9 campaign, Illinois has become the center of attention as a team that can compete with the nation’s perennial juggernauts.

In his first three years as head coach, Zook said his focus was teaching his team “how to win,” but following last season, when the Illini went 9-4 and appeared in a bowl game for the first time since 2001, the head coach is expected to solidify the Illini’s position as a conference championship contender.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for our guys,” Zook said at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Chicago. “One of the things (linebacker Brit Miller) said is we’re not going to be the class that people say let it go backwards.

“I’m very, very proud of our football team and what we were able to accomplish this past year, but I think the thing is that as a football coach you have to go on. It’s over.”

While Miller and ever-evolving quarterback Juice Williams headline a solid core of returning starters, a gaping hole still exists in the depth chart. Rashard Mendenhall’s departure for the NFL after last season has left the Illini without a solid choice at runningback.

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As the Illini scramble for a replacement at the position amongst Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard, Zook gave the thumbs-up to having a “runningback by committee” in the interim.

“Dufrene will be the guy who takes the first rip, although our first few days (in preseason practice) we split the two teams and don’t get into depth charts,” Zook said. “I think right now, at least in the beginning, it’s going to be important that we get the backs in there so we know what they can do.”

Any weaknesses the Illini carry into the 2008 campaign will likely be exposed early. A tough conference schedule – Illinois will face Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin on the road and will host Ohio State at home – will be preceded by what may be the most pivotal game of the year: the season opener against Missouri on August 30 in St. Louis.

Thanks to the surprising performances of both teams in 2007 – a Rose Bowl appearance for Illinois and a 12-2 season for the Tigers, a non-conference matchup that was glossed over by many insiders last year has transformed into what is arguably the marquee game of college football’s opening weekend.

“We felt like they were a great team last year going into it and really felt like it the year before everybody else realized how good they are,” Zook said. “Anytime you have a quarterback of Chase (Daniel)’s caliber coming back, they’re going to be a team to be reckoned with.”

The shifting philosophy towards running an effective offense was also a hot topic at the media session. The spread offense – once considered an obscure, gimmicky style – has become the rule rather than the exception. With Rich Rodriguez’s arrival as Michigan’s head coach, eight of the conference’s 11 coaches now champion some form of the spread, including Zook’s run-heavy offense.

“When we were at Florida, we didn’t run a lot of option, that wasn’t (former Florida quarterback) Chris Leak’s biggest thing. Here we run more option because we are better at it,” Zook said. “It gives us an opportunity to do the things that your football players can do the best.”