Illinois welcomes new coaches, new attitude

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Paul Petrino wasn't present for the disastrous 2009 season at Illinois, but he knew things had changed with the Fighting Illini very early this spring.

Petrino, the team's new offensive coordinator, needed only one practice to see a difference. Actually, half a practice.

"You could see it as they hit the wall in the middle of practice," he said. "Just the speed and the intensity that we went about practice with, it shocked their system."

The wall got pushed back throughout the spring, to the point where players could complete a workout without falling flat. But the demands that Petrino, new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and four other new assistants brought to spring practice never let up.

Last Tuesday, in practice No. 12 of 15 this spring, Illinois ran 93 plays during team drills. Koenning determined that the defense's performance in those 93 plays was unacceptable, so he made the entire unit do 93 up-downs.

"I've never done 93 up-downs after practice [before]," senior linebacker Martez Wilson said. "And the only reason we're doing it is because we aren't doing what we need to do."

After a poor defensive effort in one of the scrimmages this spring, Koenning had players do a pursuit drill until he "got tired of blowing the whistle."

"I wanted to see who was going to tap out," Koenning added. "We had a couple guys try to tap out and that exposed 'em."

Illinois has been exposed the last two seasons as one of the nation's biggest underachievers.

The program appeared to have turned the corner in 2007. Illinois made a surprise run to the Rose Bowl, and head coach Ron Zook continued to sign nationally ranked recruiting classes, bringing in the No. 12-rated class in 2007 and the No. 16-rated class in 2008. The talent was in place to take another step, but Illinois, as has been the case too often in the last quarter-century, backslid and went 8-16 the next two years.

"We didn't reach our potential, and there are a lot of reasons for that," Zook said. "That's the thing that we have to do this year."

Many thought a 3-9 season would signal the end for Zook, whose ability to convert heralded recruits into winners also came into question at Florida. Ultimately, athletic director Ron Guenther not only stuck by his head man but gave Zook the resources, specifically two-year contracts with competitive salaries, to revamp his staff and attract top candidates. Zook fired four coaches, including offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, demoted both of his defensive coordinators and hired six new assistants.

The new coaches boasted impressive credentials, none more so than Koenning, who had rebuilt or enhanced defenses at Kansas State, Clemson, Troy, Wyoming and Memphis. Petrino had coached some of the nation's most dynamic offenses at Arkansas and Louisville, and was looking to branch out from older brother Bobby and take total control of a unit.

This spring, Koenning and Petrino began installing their schemes and terminology, which will take time to sink in. But their instant impact on the team went beyond X's and O's.

"We've turned the wick up," Zook said. "When we say something, this is what we want, this is what we're going to get. There's pretty much a line drawn in the sand now."

After last Monday's practice, Zook went into the locker room and started talking with the wide receivers, the group that Petrino directly oversees.

"Coach Petrino, he coaches hard now, and it's great, and they love it," Zook said. "And [the receivers] said, 'Man, where'd you get that guy?' Because the time they walk out that door until the time they walk in the door, they're held accountable for every single thing."

It's a welcome change for the players after two disappointing years.

"A lot of times, you see guys in the pros and they go to another team and people say, 'Oh, their career is revitalized,'" defensive end Clay Nurse said. "It's the same thing here. You've got a new coach coming in here, he's snapping that whip, he's not taking any nonsense from us.

"And that's good for us. It's something we need."

To call this season pivotal would be an understatement for Illinois, and there are plenty of question marks. The Illini lose quarterback Juice Williams, a four-year starter, and have virtually no experience back at the position. They also must find answers along both lines, in the secondary and with the kicking game.

Some talent remains, but talent has never been the problem at Illinois. Coaching must be a bigger factor for the Illini, and the process has started this spring.

"The thing I like is seeing us come together as a team," Zook said. "That all comes from the coaches. We're all saying the same things, we're all about the same things, and the players are buying in. They're realizing, too, that the best chance of them reaching their goals is everyone having the same goal."