NEWS

Pressure is on Zook to lift Illini after major overhaul

John Supinie

It's the elephant in the room, the dark cloud hanging over the football field.

With four assistant coaches fired after last season, two more moving on and another one demoted, Illinois football cleaned house. Coach Ron Zook survived the overhaul, but there's the feeling that it's win or else this season. Part of his job is keeping the pressure off the players, but Zook said Wednesday that's part of life in major-college football.

"They understand that's the pressure of the business,'' Zook said. "You want your program to have interest, to have the pressure. That's part of it. I don't feel any more pressure than when I first came here.''

Behind two new coordinators (Paul Petrino on offense, Vic Koenning on defense), the Illini began spring drills Tuesday. Zook heads into his seventh season as Illinois coach this fall with only one winning season here. He's portrayed an upbeat, positive demeanor.

"All I can do is all I can do,'' Zook said. "I like where we're at. I like this coaching staff and the attitude of the players. There are a lot of guys in this situation before. If they haven't, they probably will be.''

The Illini know what's at stake this fall. With essentially a new coaching staff, each player must show what he can do.

"Everybody is like a freshman again,'' said wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. "Everybody can prove themselves all over again.''

-- Sophomore Michael Buchanan, a former defensive end, became the leading candidate for the bandit position, a hybrid between defensive end and linebacker that will make the Illini defense a multiple formation in part to battle spread offenses. Although Zook wouldn't go into specifics about the scheme and planned to close practice during some team drills, it's apparent the bandit will be used by Koenning.

The bandit "is a rush guy, a drop guy, a blitz guy,'' Zook said. "Michael is a guy who plays bigger than he looks. He has a chance to have a lot of success here.''

It's a playmaker position, and Zook thought linebacker Martez Wilson would be a good candidate, but Buchanan became the first option. Nate Palmer and Dustin Jefferson, who were linebackers last season, will be behind Buchanan on the depth chart at bandit.

Former linebacker Justin Staples is now at defensive end, where he's expected to earn playing time.

-- Sophomore Joelil Thrash is a candidate as a starter at safety, Zook said. Sophomore Walt Aikens was a part-time starter at safety. Thrash played in all 12 games last season and will also battle for time with Travon Bellamy and Trulon Henry, a junior-college transfer and Arrelious Benn's older brother.

Sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne will stick to defense, where he keyed victories over Michigan and Minnesota last season. Zook doesn't plan to share Hawthorne with the offense because of depth at wide receiver.

-- The resignation of Illinois assistant athletic director Shawn Wax, a former Illini wide receiver, apparently won't have an effect on the professional status of his wife, Illini softball coach Terri Sullivan. The couple celebrated the birth of their daughter, Macy, on March 10.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.