Illinois springs forward after learning experience

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois did a lot of learning last fall, even if it didn't do a lot of winning.

"I learned an awful lot last year," head coach Ron Zook said Tuesday morning. "Our coaches learned an awful lot last year. More importantly, our players learned an awful lot last year."

Zook hopes the learning experience pays off for the Fighting Illini in spring practice, which opens this afternoon in Champaign. The team comes off an extremely disappointing 5-7 season, one that began with a top-20 ranking and tons of national buzz following a run to the Rose Bowl.

Illinois returns the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback (Juice Williams), its most NFL-ready wide receiver (Arrelious Benn) and talented players at other spots, but Zook doesn't take much for granted after last season, where the team won consecutive games only once. Team chemistry wasn't a strong suit for Illinois in 2008, but Zook already has seen major progress in that department.

"This is a team," he said. "These guys are all excited about the University of Illinois football program. ... We all learned an awful lot last year. We got away from what's important. We started worrying about winning instead of letting the wins and losses take care of themselves.

"They're excited about being type of team they know they can be."

Here are some other nuggets from Zook's pre-spring news conference.

  • Defensive tackle Josh Brent remains indefinitely suspended and will not practice with the team this spring. Brent could face felony DUI charges because of multiple driving-related offenses and is due back in court April 30, five days after Illinois finishes spring drills.

  • Linebacker Martez Wilson is 100 percent for the spring after recovering from surgery to repair two stab wounds he sustained while trying to help a former teammate being attacked outside a Champaign bar in December. Hopes are once again high for Wilson, a blue-chip recruit who drew comparisons to Simeon Rice when he signed with Illinois. Zook said Wilson certainly can improve but doesn't deserve all the blame he's received for defensive miscues.

  • Zook said limiting turnovers on offense and stopping big plays on defense will be the two major focal points for spring practice. Illinois ranked ninth in the Big Ten in giveaways (26) last season and was susceptible to big plays at the end of games. "If we get better in those two areas, we'll be a better football team," Zook said.

  • Safety Donsay Hardeman (neck) and defensive lineman Daryle Ballew will miss spring ball with injuries. Cornerback Miami Thomas, who tore his ACL in Week 2 last year, could be ready for the second half of spring drills. Defensive tackle Sirod Williams, who also comes off a torn ACL, is ready to go but could be held out of some contact.

  • Zook said his three new assistants -- offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore -- have brought good enthusiasm to the players and the rest of the staff. "We felt like we did our homework in hiring guys," Zook said. "You watch how the players interacted with them -- they feel comfortable, feel good."

  • Williams is ready for an enhanced leadership role this year and has meshed well with Schultz. The offense won't change dramatically from the system run by Mike Locksley, and to further ease the transition, Zook moved Kurt Beathard from outside receivers coach to quarterbacks coach. "Kurt knows what Juice can do and what he's done," Zook said. "There's very, very little change. Those things will help Juice."

  • Line play on both sides of the ball will be key throughout the spring. Zook admits there are more questions on the defensive side after losing several starters and, for the moment, Brent, but he's excited about players like offensive linemen Jeff Allen, Jon Asamoah, Corey Lewis and Randall Hunt, and defensive linemen Corey Liuget, Antonio James and Doug Pilcher.

  • Zook was asked several times about Illinois' schedule and didn't offer much. He can't be thrilled about the team closing with Fresno State and defending Big East champ Cincinnati after the Big Ten slate. The two games could be switched around and an open date added on Nov. 21. "There are some things that there's no use talking about because it is the way it is," he said. "We've just got to go play."