Illinois translates talent to on-field success

Illinois has been arguably the nation's biggest surprise this season, but the Illini will never be confused with a bunch of overachievers.

Coach Ron Zook has recruited too well for that label to apply, signing decorated classes pretty much every February during his tenure in Champaign. ESPN Recruiting rated Illinois' 2007 class (current seniors or redshirt juniors) at No. 12 nationally, while the 2008 class (current juniors and redshirt sophomores) ranked No. 16 and the 2009 crop (current sophomores and redshirt freshmen) rated in the top 40 according to several recruiting services.

Throughout Zook's tenure, most opposing coaches have started their assessment of Illinois the way Michigan's Rich Rodriguez did Tuesday.

"Extremely athletic," said Rodriguez, whose Wolverines host Illinois on Saturday.

But extremely good?

That tag rarely has applied to Zook's Illini. Aside from the 2007 season, when Illinois went 9-4 and reached the Rose Bowl, Zook's Illini teams have the following records: 2-9, 2-10, 5-7 and 3-9.

Translating talent to on-field success has been a challenge, to say the least.

"It's the biggest challenge," Zook told ESPN.com this week. "You get good guys and you get them all playing for the same thing, that's hard to do. You can look at a lot of different teams that are successful or are not successful that are talented.

"A lot of it is maybe a little thing here, a little thing there, where they're not all on the same page."

The Illini certainly are on the same page this year, and they're writing a new chapter for a coach on whom many had closed he book after a 3-9 disaster in 2009. Illinois might be the best 5-3 squad in the country as its losses have come against three top-15 squads -- No. 11. Ohio State, No. 12 Missouri and No. 14 Michigan State -- that boast a combined record of 23-3.

With its toughest stretch in the rearview mirror, Illinois should have no trouble ending a two-year postseason drought and has a very realistic shot of playing in a Jan. 1 bowl game.

How did the Illini turn things around?

It started days after the 2009 season. Zook was spared but overhauled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators (Vic Koenning for defense, Paul Petrino for offense) and several new position coaches.

The Illini players had to learn two new systems and philosophies, but they picked it up and bonded in the process.

"It's a hard thing to accomplish, to get everybody on the same page and trying to help each other," Zook said. "You don't know for sure until you do it, but the coaches have done a great job of doing the things our players can do well. To me, it's coaches being flexible, players being flexible and everybody buying into the same thing.

"It's a pretty close-knit group, and they're trying to do something that no one thinks they can do."

Illinois has made its biggest strides on defense and special teams. The Illini rank in the top 10 nationally in both net punting and kickoff coverage, while punter Anthony Santella and kicker Derek Dimke both are in the mix for national awards.

Few first-year assistants in the country have had a more positive impact than Koenning, as the defense has gone from 91st nationally in 2009 to 15th this year. Linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive linemen Corey Liuget, two top prospects from Zook's decorated recruiting classes, are blossoming this season, playing at first-team All-Big Ten levels.

"He's a great teacher," Zook said of Koenning. "He's been flexible, he's looked at things differently. We're not doing things the same as he's done everywhere else. It's like, we've got good players, so let's get them in the right positions to make plays."

Petrino's offense also seems to be hitting its stride, as redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is evolving into a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. The Illini even dealt with claims of running up the score in last Saturday's 44-10 win against Purdue, which hasn't happened in a while.

Zook hasn't had much time to sit back and enjoy the ride, but he likes where things are headed.

"There are still questions out there," he said. "But as long as we continue in this same direction, we'll continue to improve."