Closing time upon the careers of Illinois football seniors

Speaking to his team Monday night in preparation for its season finale against Fresno State on Saturday, Illinois head coach Ron Zook looked over to see a mystified Chris Duvalt.

“I could see kind of a blank stare in his face,” Zook said of the senior wide receiver. “When you’ve been doing something for as many years as they’ve been doing it, and all of a sudden it’s coming to an end.”

With the Illini ineligible to play in a bowl after the regular season, Saturday’s game will mark the last time the team’s 15 seniors will play college football.

“This last game to me is about our seniors,” Zook said. “It’s about these guys playing their last game for the University of Illinois, playing their last game for the Illini, playing their last game in Memorial Stadium.”

The seniors will conclude a four-year playing career that began with a 2-10 season with then-true freshman Juice Williams starting at quarterback, only to turn around with a 9-4 season and a Rose Bowl berth in 2007.

“Obviously they’ve done an awful lot of good things and an awful lot of bad things,” Zook said of the seniors.

“I think one thing this class has done is show us where we can be and where we need to get back to.”

The senior class was central to Zook’s recruiting efforts after his 2005 hiring that turned around the direction of the program for at least one season in 2007. Between 2003 and 2006, Illinois won a total of eight games.

“I think when they came here it wasn’t necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that,” Zook said.

For Zook and the rest of the team, a win on Saturday would be the best graduation gift for the departing seniors.

“As I told our football team after the game last Saturday, they basically recruited everybody in this room,” Zook said. “We owe it to them to do everything in our power as a football team and as a coaching staff to do everything we can do to win this game.”

Not only will Saturday’s game be the last game for the seniors in an Illini uniform, for some it may also be their last competitive football game.

“For some of these guys, this is it,” Zook said. “Everybody thinks they may have a chance (playing professional football), and maybe they will, maybe they won’t. The only thing they’re guaranteed is one more game.”

Williams, a senior, said he intends to attempt a career in the NFL, even if that means switching from quarterback to wide receiver or running back. But Williams acknowledges that there is a chance that the NFL won’t work out.

Set to graduate with a communications degree, Williams said he would like to go into sports broadcasting, or anything else “that will let me still be in the sports world without the pads on.”

“After Saturday, we hit the real world,” Williams said. “Whether that’s the NFL or getting into the job market, the reality of life really kicks in.”