‘Zook Class’ prepares for final game at Memorial Stadium

By Wes Anderson

Ask just about any nostalgic college senior, and they’ll say their four years (or more) at college zoomed right on by. The typical day for Illini football players is arguably much longer and more strenuous, but the same thing can be said for them, too.

“It’s very hard to believe how fast things went,” senior lineman Xavier Fulton said. “It really feels like I just got here, still.”

Fulton is among a contingent of Illini seniors who will play at Memorial Stadium for the final time on Saturday against No. 10 Ohio State. Despite the enormous magnitude of the game itself – Illinois’ bowl prospects may be at stake – those suiting up in the home colors one last time are more than aware of it.

“You want to be prepared for it, knowing it’s your last game. It’s going to be a little different in preparation,” senior linebacker Brit Miller said. “You don’t want any surprises against Ohio State.”

Unlike previous years, or even last season, this senior class carries a special significance. It is the first class to have spent four years under the guidance of head coach Ron Zook since his arrival at Illinois before the 2005 season.

“A bunch of them have been through what life is all about: some of the really, really lows and some of the really, really highs,” Zook said. “That’s probably about as much of a learning experience as you can have.”

Listing the innumerable changes in Champaign since Zook’s arrival would be a monumental task. Back in 2005, when only 11 games were on the schedule, the Illini finished 2-9 and a bowl berth seemed years away.

Three seasons, a stadium renovation and one Rose Bowl later, the Illinois football program of 2008 is an entirely different animal.

Miller knows this better than anyone. The linebacker was a part of Zook’s makeshift recruiting class after he took the reins from Ron Turner after the 2004 season. The Decatur, Ill., native went on to become a starter at linebacker each of his four seasons.

“Being a senior, with the guys I’ve come up with, I think we’ve done a little bit for the program, hopefully to put us on the upswing here at Illinois,” Miller said. “I’m glad to be a part of that.”

Will Davis, also a fourth-year senior, was initially recruited to catch passes and appeared in 23 plays as either a receiver or a tight end during his true freshman season. The next year, he was moved to defensive lineman, where he has flourished.

“Oh, man. There’s just been so many memories, good, bad and in the middle,” Davis said.

Not everyone has played only under Coach Zook, however. Due to redshirting, players like center Ryan McDonald are closing out their fifth year of collegiate football at Illinois.

“The experience of the good and the bad, crying after games in the locker rooms and celebrating after games, it’s been a wonderful ride,” said McDonald, who sat out the 2004 season before starting every game since. “I’ve enjoyed everything.”

Fulton was also one of Turner’s recruits and started at defensive lineman in 2004 as a freshman. After the coaching change, Fulton injured his knee against Penn State his sophomore season, forcing him to redshirt that season.

He returned as a left tackle in 2007 and quickly became a standout at the new position, making all 13 starts last season.

Then there’s players like Will Judson, who transferred from Florida A&M; in 2005 and didn’t even catch a pass until his junior year. Now, Judson is among the fastest of the Illini wideouts and is second on the team with 401 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season.

“Things didn’t go exactly the way I wanted them, but I kept working, and it paid off in the end,” Judson said.

All the seniors have played during a period of change that hasn’t stopped in the win column, either. Zook and the coaching staff consistently recruit on a national level, utilizing pipelines his assistant coaches established during his tenure at Florida. A team that once relied almost exclusively on Illinois natives has become a national program.

“It’s had a facelift. The athletes are better, we’ve got these great facilities and the coaches are here to stay,” Miller said. “Coming back five years from now, these guys will be on top. I’m excited about it.”

Miller added that with the “Zook Class” taking the Memorial Stadium field for the last time, there’s only one senior ritual planned for the weekend.

“Hopefully, win,” he said.