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AFM Subscribers Ask...with Ron Zook

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Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook and his staff and players recorded one of the greatest turnarounds in the last decade with the team’s performance last fall. The Illini, 2-10 in 2006, finished the season with a 9-3 record, a major upset win over Ohio State in Columbus and a berth in the Rose Bowl. That turnaround (+7) was tops among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Known as a tireless worker and recruiter, Zook’s first two campaigns resulted in an overall 4-19 record. But his recruiting paid off with many underclassmen returning in 2008 and a strong freshman class coming to Champaign in the fall.

Zook has logged 33 years of coaching experience at the collegiate, high school and professional level. He previously was the head coach at Florida and, before that, was the DC for the New Orleans Saints. Zook began his coaching career at Orrville High School (OH) and had coaching stops at Murray State, Cincinnati, Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs. He answers your questions…

Q. What were the major concerns you had when you first started at Illinois? Also, what were your priorities on offense, defense and special teams? Steve Adams, Assistant Coach, Calvary Christian School, Columbus, GA. AFM subscriber since 2006.

The biggest concern I had when I came to Illinois was the attitude. I was more concerned about that than anything related to offense, defense or special teams. We needed to develop a winning attitude where we could go out and win every game. We accomplished that by pounding on the guys that were here and also bringing in players who had that winning attitude. Our priorities then on the field were to start installing the offense, defense and special teams. But, at the same time, as a coaching staff we had to learn what the skills were of our personnel. Then the priority was to mesh the two together. What happened was that the players grew, began to trust us as coaches to teach them and to trust each other as well.

Q. Did you change your offense once you were able to assess the talent level at Illinois? Did you decide to change formations or sets once you were able to see the kind of athletes you had? Chuck Claiborne, Independence High School (MS). AFM subscriber since 2007.

You always do some tweaking in the beginning because you have so many different types of players on your roster. As a coach, you need to put players in the best position to be successful. Oftentimes, that means making adjustments to your schemes depending on the strengths of your athletes. But that doesn’t mean changing your overall philosophy as it relates to the talent level you have.

Q. Defensively, after viewing tape of the team, what made you decide on using the 8-man front? Was it a matter of personnel and/or the types of offenses you would be facing in the Big Ten? Steve Baer, Assistant Coach, Springfield HS (VT). AFM subscriber since 2005.

We went with the 8-man front because, in all of my time as a coach, I have been associated with that type of defense. I am a firm believer in it. I’m also a strong believer in needing to stop the run first and foremost. When you do that, you give your team the best opportunity to win. I believe the 8-man front gives you the best chance to control the run offense. As coaches, it’s a system we believe in.

Q. What types of coverage do you run with zone pressure? Matt Bartley, Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator, Xenia High School (OH). AFM subscriber since 2006.

We get involved somewhat with match-up type zones but also use zone pressure with man free and three deep coverages.

Q. How important do you view the play of special teams? Is there one phase of special teams that you make a priority? Brian Johnson, Assistant Coach, Liberty HS (IL). AFM subscriber since 2005.

Very important. Special teams can win games for you and also lose games for you. I believe you must be as sound in your special teams as you are in the other two phases of the game. I treat all disciplines equally. One cannot be more important than the other.

If our opponent is outstanding in one phase of special teams such as kickoff returns, we’ll spend the time needed to prepare a game plan against that specific area of special teams. We’ll try to be as specific as we can be in attacking or countering what their special teams expertise is.

Coming Soon: Appalachian State and their Head Coach Jerry Moore enjoyed a remarkable season in 2007. Not only did the Mountaineers beat Michigan, 34-32, in one of the biggest upsets in college football history, they also won their third consecutive Football Championship Subdivision title. In the process, Appalachian State became the first college to ever ‘three-peat’ among FCS schools. Coach Moore answers your questions in our April issue.

Go to or send your question to AFM’s Managing Editor Rex Lardner at


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