CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Something just wasn't right. Illinois coach Ron Zook could sense it, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
As Zook peers out a window of his office on this late February day, it's still a mystery to him why his 2008 team struggled.
"Every team is different every year," Zook says. "I knew something was wrong last year and still don't know what it was. I got that feeling in January . I said it all the time heading into the season. But we don't have that problem this year. These are good guys to be around. It's exciting."
It's easy to excite Zook. He is college football's go-go coach who goes pedal to the metal from task to task – even in the offseason.
Players come and go from his office on this Wednesday. There's wide receiver Jarred Fayson, stopping by to pick up some motivational reading material. There's cornerback Miami Thomas, popping in to tell Zook he already can do eight push-ups following offseason shoulder surgery. There's Zook's wife, Denise, swinging in with lunch for her and her husband. Zook unwraps his sandwich and takes a bite.
"We were this close," he says, squeezing the air between his index finger and thumb. "If we had taken care of the ball and played better in the kicking game, I think we could have won three more games – Wisconsin, Minnesota and Western Michigan."
It didn't happen, and Illinois finished 5-7 after opening the season in the top 20 of both major preseason polls. That disappointment came on the heels of what was seen as a breakout season in 2007, when the Illini earned their first Rose Bowl trip since the 1983 season.
That brings us to this season, a crossroads of sorts, and the question must be posed: Was the Rose Bowl season a fluke?
"We may have overachieved a bit in the third year when we went to the Rose Bowl," Zook says. "But I think we are on track."
But take away Illinois' 9-4 record in '07, and the Fighting Illini are 9-26 in the other three seasons under Zook. That's why many feel 2009 will be Zook's defining season in Champaign.
Zook's staff has been overhauled, part by necessity, part by design. Joe Gilbert was hired from Houston to coach the offensive line, and Keith Gilmore comes aboard from Cincinnati to run the defensive line. But the biggest change has taken place at offensive coordinator. Mike Locksley left to become coach of New Mexico, taking with him an underrated play-calling ability and massive recruiting power.
The staff almost underwent more change, as Zook courted Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson to become defensive coordinator. In the end, Johnson remained in State College, leaving Dan Disch and Curt Mallory to be co-coordinators again. Disch recently turned down a chance to be defensive coordinator at USF.
Zook hated to see Locksley leave but knew it was inevitable. Locksley had been one of the hottest coaching commodities in recent years.
"I hated to lose 'Locks,' but I knew that day was coming," Zook says. "It was just a matter of time. 'Locks' is ready and will do a good job. I am happy for him. I was with him longer than any other assistant in my career. You plan for the day. Is it going to be the same? No, it won't."
The need to stay grounded
For Juice Williams, 30 is too much – as in 30 passing attempts per game. In games during his career in which he has attempted at least 30 passes, the Fighting Illini are 1-9. Worth nothing is he attempted 30 passes in a game just once in the 2007 season, in which the Illini went to the Rose Bowl.
Zook turned to TCU offensive coordinator Mike Schultz to take over the attack. The two didn't know each other, but they were put together by a mutual friend: Mike Gottfried.
Zook worked for Gottfried at Murray State, Cincinnati and Kansas. Gottfried got to know Schultz through his work as a TV analyst and his role with the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala., which TCU took part in after the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
"All Coach Schultz has done is win, and he has done it in a variety of ways," Zook says. "I remember watching their bowl game last year vs. Boise State. He didn't worry about running or throwing; he just did what he had to do to win the game."
Schultz spent the past 11 seasons at TCU, serving as offensive coordinator the final eight seasons. While there, he helped develop some powerful rushing attacks and helped groom LaDainian Tomlinson.
No doubt, Schultz's ability to generate strong ground games made him attractive to Zook. A big reason Illinois struggled offensively last season was an inability to run consistently. The Illini saw their ground attack slip to fifth – at 169.5 yards per game – in the Big Ten after leading the conference in rushing in each of the previous two seasons.
The rushing attack could be a problem again in 2009. There will be two new starters in the offensive line, and there also is talk of moving Eric Block from guard to center. And how good are the running backs? Jason Ford is OK but not a prototype. Daniel Dufrene is talented but lacks toughness. Keep an eye on two true freshmen, Justin Green and Bud Golden. Both are quicker to the line than any back on the roster now.
"I am going to keep as much continuity as possible," Schultz says. "We will keep the core stuff they have done in the past. I am not at liberty to reveal what we will do differently. But we will add a few new dimensions to take advantage of some of the tools that [quarterback] Juice Williams possesses."
Williams led the Big Ten in total offense in '08, at 326.0 yards per game. But while his touchdown total jumped from 13 in 2007 to 22 last season, his interception total also increased, from 12 to 16. In the last five games of the season, when Illinois was battling to become bowl eligible, Williams threw six touchdown passes but nine interceptions.
"We will run the same offense," Zook says. "Juice will be starting a fourth year. You always will make changes even if you don't have a coaching change, tweak the system. I think Juice will be OK."
At this point in his career, Williams is what he is: an average passer but a terrific runner. Schultz isn't going to ask Williams to play outside his comfort zone. And history has shown Illinois stands a better chance to win if Williams isn't asked to pass often.
There is no doubt this will be Williams' team. A senior, he will be looking to cap a mercurial career that has been filled with as many ups as downs. Thanks to Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn, Illinois will have a veteran offense with potential.
Not so special
Turnovers hurt Illinois in 2008, as the Illini ranked ninth in the Big Ten in turnover margin (minus-6). Penalties also were an issue, as Illinois was the second-most penalized team in the Big Ten (66 times for 612 yards, for 51 yards per game). But special teams were an even bigger culprit in the Fighting Illini stumbling to a 5-7 record in 2008 following a run to the Rose Bowl in 2007:
Punting: The Illini were 10th, at 31.6 yard per punt.
Punt returns: The Illini were 11th, at 6.5 yards per return.
Kickoff coverage: The Illini were 10th, allowing 23.6 yards per return and two touchdowns.
Kickoff returns: The Illini were fifth, averaging 21.0 yards per return.
Questions on defense – Who will be the linebackers? How good will the safeties be? – and special teams further cloud Illinois' 2009 outlook in its quest to recapture the glory it enjoyed in 2007. Leaders also need to emerge.
"Put that on me," Benn says. "I know I will be a main leader for the team this year. We used to clap and get it up as a team after weightlifting sessions my first year here. But we got away from that last year. We have gotten that back. I can tell most of the selfishness is gone. We have [weeded] a lot of those kind of guys out of here.
"It's time to go. It's time to win again."
But how many wins? This has the look of a six- or a seven-win team, which likely would be good enough to satisfy Illinois officials.
Six or seven wins would get the Illini into a bowl. Before the Rose Bowl appearance, Illinois had been to just two bowls (the Sugar after the 2001 season and the 1999 Micronpc) since 1994. Zook knows learning how to deal with success is the next step his program must take.
"This past year, we had too many young guys, too many key guys who were freshmen or sophomores, who felt that if they go to Illinois that maybe they can go to the Rose Bowl," Zook says. "But that ain't the way it works. I felt that maybe on paper we were a better team this past year [than in 2007], but it isn't all on paper. It's about the passion.