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BIG TEN CONFERENCE MEDIA CONFERENCE
April 13, 2011
THE MODERATOR: we're joined by Illinois Coach Zook. Coach, thanks for joining us.
COACH ZOOK: Thank you. Just glad to be here.
We're about halfway through spring. I think this morning was number nine. We're doing something a little bit different than we've done in the past, practicing in the morning. Very pleased with the way our guys have performed, where we picked up, where we left off. The attitude has been great and I think we've continued to make a lot of progress.
THE MODERATOR: We'll go to questions.
Q. With the loss of Leshoure, who kind of stepped up the most right now in terms of the running game or rushing offense?
COACH ZOOK: The thing we've done, Akeem Spence is back. Had a long talk with him this morning. Kind of took over for where Corey was. Corey kind of trained Akeem in terms of work ethic and leadership. Very pleased with the way Akeem has taken this spring, the way he's worked, pulled all the defensive linemen together.
We've moved a guy by the name of Craig Wilson, who had been an offensive linemen here, moved him to the defensive line. He's a big guy, about 325 pounds. I really feel like he's going to be a pretty good defensive lineman for us. We're getting him all the reps that we can. I think he's learning what to do. It's been a while since he's played defense. I really feel like he's going to have a chance to help us on the defensive line.
Q. Why the change to practicing in the morning?
COACH ZOOK: Well, the biggest thing was because of class schedules. We couldn't find a three-and-a-half-hour block. Guys with so many different majors, so many different class offerings, we couldn't get a three-and-a-half-hour block.
What we've done is try to go in the morning where we get to have the opportunity to have a three-and-a-half-hour block. Our guys enjoy it. We've done it for the winter program. I think they've enjoyed being done at 10, 10:30, 11 at the latest. They can go on and be a college student. We don't start that early, 7:00. Not like we're getting them up at the crack of dawn. They've enjoyed it. I feel academically we've done a little better job.
Q. These days seem like there's so many mobile quarterbacks around the league. Is this a coincidence that there are so many in the Big Ten all of a sudden or is the league kind of evolving that way?
COACH ZOOK: I don't know if it's a coincidence. If you look around the country, a lot of people are going with a guy. Most of my experience has been on the defense. It closes so many headaches when you have a guy that's mobile. It's an extra runningback back there, an extra guy you have to worry about. Pass-rush, the option is a possibility as well. I just think there's a lot of these young, good athletes that have come out that are pretty good quarterbacks. As is our case with Nathan, a great leader, great competitor, has done a great job with our offense.
Q. How has Nathan looked this spring? What do you see as his potential as your quarterback down the road?
COACH ZOOK: Well, we felt like he made great strides last year being a first-year player. Coach Brohm and Coach Petrino have done a great job with giving Nathan the things that he can do, be successful at. I think the thing that Nathan has done is improved. The coaches are giving him just what he can handle. So he's been able to take a little bit at a time, gotten better every day.
One of the things we said we needed to do in the beginning of spring was improve our passing game. That was not just only Nathan but everybody from protection to run after the catch, all those kind of things. Been very, very pleased with the way we've made some improvements in the passing game.
Q. I wanted to follow up about Nathan and the improvements you want to see him make. You mentioned the passing game. What do you need to see from him specifically? What improvements are you seeing already coming off of last year?
COACH ZOOK: I think, number one, if you go back and look at last year, he probably threw more passes last year when you talk about the whole year and practice than he had combined in his entire life. His arm is much stronger. He's much more accurate.
But the biggest thing is not so much that, but knowing where to go with the ball, the release, getting rid of the ball quickly. Football is a reaction game. The more times you do something, the quicker you are at it. That's where he's made some awfully good improvements.
I think obviously the receivers, we have young receivers with A.J. Jenkins, and Darius Millines being out this spring, it's given some of the young guys that we're excited about an opportunity to get a lot of reps.
Q. Coach, you talked about wanting to create more big plays out of the passing game specifically. Are there things you're doing toward that end or are you just talking about receivers making big plays, yards after the catch?
COACH ZOOK: Well, I think that's a big thing is yards after the catch. Today in our scrimmage we had several big plays from the offense. It wasn't necessarily long passes, although a couple of them were. It was receivers making plays after the catch. That's the thing that we talked about being able to do. Nathan gets them the ball quick enough where they can make a cut or they have room to maneuver. They become a ball carrier in an open field. I think we've made great strides in that way so far this spring.
Q. Talk about the Texas Bowl victory last year, what that meant heading into the spring.
COACH ZOOK: Number one, I knew we were playing an awfully good football team. I was proud of the way our guys competed and prepared for that game. It gave us an awful lot of confidence going in and playing a good football team, playing them very, very well. I think we played in all three phases well. Once again, it was a great springboard.
The thing we talked about in our very first meeting being back here is we don't want to go back to ground zero. You always go back to ground zero in terms of technique, the things you're learning. We want to be able to build on where we were.
It's been a lot more fun this spring than it was last spring when you're putting in a new offense and defense, creating some havoc. This has been a lot of fun this year. I think our guys can see themselves getting back.
Q. Talk about how the defense looked in the spring.
COACH ZOOK: So far they've done extremely well. You lose two guys, particularly with Martez Wilson at linebacker and Corey in the middle. Nate Bussey, those guys accounted for a lot of guys. When you lose guys, it gives other guys an opportunity to step up. That's kind of what it all about. Ashante Williams has had a great spring taking over for the position of Martez, as has Ian Thomas. I think, once again, those guys, they're getting an opportunity, a chance to play. There's no reason why they shouldn't be able to pick up right where they left off.
We moved Ian Thomas back to the Mike linebacker which he played when Martez was hurt the year before last. It's not necessarily a new position for him. He's done well.
The two outside backers, Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates, I've been very impressed with the way they played. This morning's scrimmage, they were spectacular.
Q. Could you talk a little about how the runningbacks are progressing. You have some experienced guys back there. Was Ford hurt with an injury?
COACH ZOOK: He's doing well. He went through the individual stuff today, but not the scrimmage. He'll scrimmage on Saturday. Jason, once again, if it would have been a game, he would have played today. It's something in the back of his knee. It's not a major thing where we're going to have to lose time. We just want to be careful with him. He's up into that point.
He's gotten his weight down a little bit. He's still dropping some pounds. When he's got that weight down a little bit, he's an awfully good back. We said all along, a year ago at this time, we weren't sure who would carry the ball the most, whether it would be him or Mikel. Obviously losing Mikel is a big loss, but it gives these other guys a chance.
Troy Pollard has had a great spring. He's looked as good as he's looked since he's been there. Bud Golden, he has a sprained toe. He wasn't able to go today. He also has had an opportunity to step up and run the football.
Those guys, anytime you lose a great one, it's hard to stick a guy in there. But I think particularly with Jason Ford, a guy we feel very good about, has an awful lot of experience, we feel we can continue our running game just as it was.
Q. Derek Dimke returns as your field goal kicker. Talk about how he's improved this spring.
COACH ZOOK: Derek has a chance to be as good as any kicker in the country. He's got a great leg, great accuracy. His confidence is where it needs to be. He worked extremely hard in the off-season. We're breaking in a new holder now. That's a little bit different. But it hasn't seemed to affect Derek at all.
I really think, as I said, he's got to be a chance to be as good a kicker as anyone in the country.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach. We're joined by Nathan Scheelhaase. Nathan, thanks for joining us.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: How is it going?
THE MODERATOR: Talk a little bit about how spring football has been going and we'll take questions from the media.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: It's been going well. I think we were all looking forward to this spring, building off where we got to last season. We were excited about where we got to last season and thought this could spur us forward into the work we could do next season.
Obviously for all of us, it's our second year under each of our coordinators respectively, being under their system. I think we're all feeling more and more confident this spring in what we're doing and building on that confidence we got towards the end of last season.
THE MODERATOR: Let's go to questions.
Q. What are you trying to improve upon the most as a quarterback in this system for the second consecutive year? What are you looking for the offensive line to contribute this season?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: As a quarterback, I really feel like I can make strides in the passing game. I think that was another thing we kind of showed in the bowl game that we were able to do. It helped going into this spring, just gaining confidence. If we make big strides in the passing game, I think our offense can do damage this year.
As far as the offensive line goes, we have a bunch of hard-working guys, guys that have been working this whole off-season not only in the running game but in pass protection. It's a tight-knit unit. You look across the conference, it's a conference known for great offensive linemen. Their goal is to be the best, so they're going to work for that.
Q. What did you learn the most from last year? What was the biggest thing that impacted you in your knowledge of the game?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: I learned a whole lot last season. Coach told me that experience is one thing that you can't buy. You can't do anything about it until you're thrown in there. Just going through the season, I learned what it means to stay focused on a week-in, week-out basis.
In our conference, you're going to play great teams every week, especially when you get into conference play, just the mental focus it takes in that week of preparation in scheming them, trying to know what your opponent is going to do against you. I think that's the biggest thing you learn from the season.
Going into the off-season, I think it made me work smarter. I feel like I'm always a hard worker, trying to improve my game. I feel like after being through a season, it showed me the things I could work on, small things, the difference between getting the ball right out of the break or being half a second late and being tackled. It made me work on those things. Obviously just playing the season kind of gives you that insight.
Q. It strikes me that you're one of the biggest crop of mobile quarterbacks I can remember in the Big Ten. Do you think that's a coincidence that you all show up at once or is it kind of the way the game is now?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: It is funny. You look at the Big Ten, as far as quarterback goes, probably has the most athletic quarterbacks. We added Taylor Martinez to the quarterback position this year.
It is kind of funny. I don't know whether it's coincidence or not that we all fell into the Big Ten Conference at the same time. As athletic as we all are, as similar as we all are, we all run for the most part totally different offenses. Obviously we don't know the exact offense Michigan is going to run this year, but I'm sure it's going to be different than everybody else's. Same goes for many teams.
It is interesting to see that many quarterbacks with that athleticism. But I think that we all have to be able to put pressure on the defense. I've always used my ability to use my legs to my advantage. I think others do a good job of doing the same thing.
Q. You already average 50 yards a game. Given the young receivers you have, do you see yourself even expanding, having to run that part of your game even more?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: Yeah, I really do. Obviously in the passing game I wanted to make strides. If you look at the runs I had last season, there's a whole lot more I can do as far as breaking tackles on the second level, making guys miss. I think that will be huge going into the season.
Obviously a lot of our big plays came from big runs Mikel had. I think I can help our play with some longer runs, just being better in the running game, gaining extra yards. It's crazy to look back on the film of all my runs last year. If I make a guy miss, it puts an easy seven points on the board for us. That's where I want to make an improvement.
Q. Coach said a couple times in the spring he hopes to produce more big plays through the passing game. Do you see that you have the receivers who might be able to help in that regard? Who specifically have you seen?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: Yeah. We definitely have guys that can create big plays. Even in this spring, we have guys making huge plays. We have a bunch of fast guys out there that really can do well when the ball is in their hands.
I think that responsibility falls more on my shoulders, getting the ball to my receivers on time, A.J. Jenkins. If you give them a little extra space, get them the ball on time, it separates them from the defense a little bit more. I think they have a great ability to make guys miss. They're as fast as anybody I know. They're posted there on the outside, whether it's catching a short pass and going the distance with it or whether it's running by a defender on a long ball, whatever it takes, those guys are pretty good at doing it.
My job is just getting the ball in the right place.
Q. Do you think you guys are going to throw deep a little bit more this year than maybe you did last season?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: Yeah, I think we will. I think we've really added speed at the receiving position. With A.J. last year, I think he's one of the fastest guys in the conference. We're definitely a faster receiving core than we were last year. When we have a Darius as our other outside receiver, a kid from Florida who can flat out run. Even in our inside receiver, putting Fred Sykes there, he's another guy that really is a good vertical threat. Obviously, they do it all. I'm talking about flat out running by people. They definitely pose that threat. I think that will be a big help for our offense and give us a big jump.
Q. You touched on feeling more comfortable this season. How different is it? Can you describe that? How much of a difference do you think that can make?
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: Yeah, it's night and day. If you look at last year's spring ball, going out there, it's totally different. Obviously, the quarterback competition, working with our coaches, working in their system, just going into this year, we've been through a season with our coaches. We've been through a season game planning, having players in this system, running it the right way.
I think we step out there this spring with confidence. It's a totally different look for us because it's the first time in a while we've been out there during the spring and really feel confident about what we're able to do next season. I think that's going to carry over and run into fall practice coming up this fall.
It's been a huge difference for me. It's just been really great to have a second year working with Coach Petrino. It makes it a whole lot easier on your quarterbacks.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Nathan. We appreciate the time. Best of luck the rest of spring.
NATHAN SCHEELHAASE: Thank you. I appreciate it.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports