After quieting his critics in ’07, Zook prepares to impress in ’08

By Daniel Johnson

CHICAGO – One of the most common questions asked at the Big Ten Media Days was directly about Illinois and its improbable run to the Rose Bowl.

Who can be this year’s “Illinois”? Which team is going to come from the bottom of the Big Ten to surprise college football?

But speculation aside, there is another question that is undeniably looming as the season nears.

Can Illinois be this year’s “Illinois”?

Expectations were seemingly non-existent last season from anyone outside of Champaign. This time last year, Zook talked about how he expected his team to progress; his team had to take the next step, which he was more than happy to define.

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“Win,” he said at last year’s media days, “that is the next step.”

As evidenced by his ability to recruit, Zook’s ability to convince people is almost unquestioned.

But it seemed that critics weren’t convinced of his ability to take that step. They were still having their doubts at the time, still taking the talk with a grain of salt.

This year is a far different story, for obvious reasons.

Zook silenced his critics – for the time being. He and Illinois now have a completely different set of challenges in front of them.

“When you look at this team you have to wonder, and analysts are going to wonder this across the country – any time that a team makes a jump that quickly, going to a Rose Bowl, a BCS bowl – Iis there going to be some slippage the next year?'” former Illini running back and Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said.

Zook knew there would be eventual questions about how his team is going to deal with expectations this season.

“We were a football team that felt liked we accomplished something, ’cause we had, we had gotten better,” Zook said regarding last year’s team. “They understand, we’re not close to where we have to be yet. It’s imperative that we understand that we have to continue to do the things that we have done to this point for us to have a chance to have success. That’s the whole thing, we made a little progress. Just like you go back and if you look at what Iowa has done in the past, you look at what Wisconsin done in the past, you look at what Purdue has done in the past, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Zook’s vocal speed seems to increases with each word after a question is asked to him. His excitement for this season shows constantly when he’s speaking about his team. But excitement may be better described and understood as an impatient anticipation – of him getting a chance to silence his critics’ new set of questions.

Can he keep his team from getting complacent? How much will it take to get this team to not rest on its laurels?

The answer might be seven more days, to start. Illinois’ Camp Rantoul, the team’s training camp, will now be extended an extra week.

“The Rantoul thing is just because the way the schedule worked out, the way the calendar falls and, you know, it gives you an opportunity to stay there,” Zook said.

For whatever reason, likely a combination of calendar and desire to work more, the team will have an extra week to prepare. Zook, the team and coaches will have their three weeks north of Champaign, and then they will have their season-opening rematch with Missouri.

And one can likely guess who is the most excited.

Said Zook, “I’m the only one that’s exited; our coaches aren’t even excited (for the extra time).”

He’s not lying, either.

“I can tell fans we’re really excited it’s three weeks instead of two,” senior center Ryan McDonald said, before deadpanning, “and that was a sarcastic joke. Coach Zook is the only one who loves Camp Rantoul. He loves it.”

McDonald stops for a second before thinking some and continues.

“But, when you look at it, taking personal feelings aside, and look at it from a coach’s perspective, it’s a great opportunity to get away from any sort of distraction. I don’t think they even have many trees or buildings, anything like that. It’s very concealed.”

Zook is a season older and a season wiser; as are his players, who are finally starting to understand their coach – why Zook won’t let them let up and why he repeats himself over and over and over.

“We’ve got coach Zook, he’s the reason for the turnaround, he’s the reason we can stay on top of our game,” senior linebacker Brit Miller said. “I don’t see coach Zook letting us revert in any way. You could be two and one half hours deep into practice, getting ready to run sprints, and if you’re not running hard enough he’ll start over. He always says to us, ‘You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,’ and I’ve heard him say it probably like, a million times, if that’s even possible. But I only really started to understand it this past year, it makes a lot of sense.”