- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
IF THERE'S ANY QUESTION ABOUT WHY ILLINOIS COACH RON Zook is in a precarious spot—let's face it, anything less than a bowl berth this season could lead to his ouster—his won-loss numbers with the Fighting Illini give the answer: 2-9, 2-10, 9-4, 5-7, 3-9.
"We had guys who thought we had made it," says Zook of the Illini's trip to the Rose Bowl just three seasons ago—an accomplishment upon which the program has failed to build. "We explained to them that we still had a long way to go. The success that this program has had, it hasn't been year in, year out. That's what we have to change."
Changes have come in Champaign...just not the ones some would have predicted. The embattled Zook kept his job but overhauled his staff by hiring six new assistants, including coordinators on both sides of the ball (Paul Petrino on offense, Vic Koenning on defense).
On the field the Illini have a new look as well. Quarterback Juice Williams, the face of the team for the past four seasons, is gone; so is marquee receiver Arrelious Benn. The defense lost four starters but will be boosted by the return of Martez Wilson, the star linebacker who missed nearly all of last season after injuring his neck in the season opener.
The Illini's success—and Zook's survival—could all ride on a player who has yet to take a snap in college. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase won the starting quarterback job in spring practice, impressing both Zook and Petrino with his talent and, perhaps more important, his leadership. "That's one reason we made him the starting quarterback," Zook says. "Nathan is a leader. He makes things happen. For a redshirt freshman, he's ahead of his time."
Scheelhaase, from Kansas City, Mo., will be tested immediately. Illinois opens the season for the fourth year in a row in St. Louis against rival Missouri. The Illini have lost all three previous openers against the Tigers, and last season's 37-9 blowout loss set the tone for a disappointing season. "It's critical we get off to a good start, but we can't think, We have to win x number of games," Scheelhaase says. "Coach Zook told us he would make the necessary changes for us to be successful. Now it falls to us. Nobody wants a long Christmas break this year. We want to be at a bowl."
COACH Ron Zook (6th year)
21-39 (12-28 in Big Ten)