CHICAGO -- If Illinois senior defensive end Clay Nurse had his way, he’d take on coach Ron Zook’s critics like he does opposing quarterbacks.
Nurse understands, though, leveling a columnist probably wouldn’t please the school’s administrators.
“As a player, I don’t want anyone coming after my coach just like he doesn’t want anyone coming after me,” Nurse said Tuesday. “I’m not supposed to sit here and be happy that people are attacking my coach. I’d love to stand up and defend him the way I see fit, but you have to be a representative of the school and be a great representative of the school. That comes with the territory where people have their opinions, and you have to sort of take it.”
Nurse, senior wide receiver Eddie McGee and junior defensive back Tavon Wilson, Illinois’ representatives at the Big Ten Media Days, did have to answer questions about Zook’s recent struggles on Tuesday, and they didn’t just take it. They defended their coach.
“The issues with opinions of the people outside is just that -- they’re on the outside,” Nurse said. “They’re not inside the building looking in. They don’t know what’s going on inside. Coach Zook is a great coach or else he wouldn’t have this job. They’re not going hire somebody in college football who can’t coach.
“Obviously the season we had last year wasn’t good. For some reason, people just think we just shut it down or we weren’t playing hard or the coaches weren’t working hard. I’ll challenge anyone to come into our office at about 11 o’clock at night and see who is burning the oil, seeing who’s in there watching film. Obviously, the fans don’t like the outcome. They don’t like the record or whatever, but at the same time you don’t come after a coach and tell him he’s not working hard.”
McGee said he and his teammates were out to win no matter what season, but he didn’t believe it was mandatory for Zook to be Illinois’ coach a year from now.
“Outside stuff that coach Zook might be gone or whatever, they don’t know,” McGee said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. Coach is a great coach. I think our athletic director [Ron] Guenther knows that. I don’t think there’s any added pressure from outside sources.
“I don’t think there’s anything to prove outside the locker rom. We have to prove something to ourselves within the locker room. That’s our motivation. We want to prove that weren’t not that team people claim us to be.”
Nurse also didn’t consider Zook to being on the coaching hot seat this season.
“I don’t think his job is on the line,” Nurse said. “I just think coach Zook needs to keep doing exactly what he’s doing and just lead the team. I understand the criticisms, but it doesn’t mean I have to listen to it or that I have to give it legs to help it run.
“I’m going to hear the criticism, and I’m just going to do what I normally do – just forget about it. What good does it do? Does it help me tackle in a game? Nope. Does it help him study film any harder? No it doesn’t. Does it help me go to class and get better grades? Why pay attention to it?”
Wilson believed the key to this season was moving on from last season.
“I definitely feel like it’s a new feeling than last year,” Wilson said. “Everybody feels like it’s a new beginning. We’re not worried about the things that happened in the past. We’re focused on what we can control now. We can’t control the past. We can only control this season.”