CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois football team's annual banquet was supposed to honor the seniors, which it did. They just added one.
Ron Zook, who has been mostly in Florida since his last day at Illinois, returned to Memorial Stadium for Saturday's event.
One by one, the players receiving awards went to the microphone and said something nice about their former coach. They talked about what he meant to them on the field and off.
Zook wasn't scheduled to talk. But after a long video that included current and past players doing Zook impersonations and uttering Zookisms, he talked briefly.
"I could be up for an hour to thank everyone because it's been a great seven years," Zook said. "It's about the players. I can't be there (at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl), but you guys go out there and do something that's never been done. You're going to win two bowl games. Just play your butts off, have fun, don't worry about all the other stuff. Keep the main thing the main thing."
Held at the Colonnades Club, the banquet came a day after Tim Beckman was named the school's next coach. The 2011 staff, including interim head coach Vic Koenning, took turns handing out the various awards. Twenty-six in all (full list in Scoreboard, D-8).
The big winner was defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who earned another All-America honor Saturday (Football Writers Association of America). The nation's sacks leader was named the team's MVP and top defensive lineman. He also was one of five captains, joining Jack Cornell, Trulon Henry, Nathan Scheelhaase and Tavon Wilson.
A year ago, he was a part-timer. Now, the Ted Hendricks Award winner is thinking about an early entry into the NFL draft. He has made a jump in production unlike few players in school history.
"I can't really wrap my head around it," Mercilus said. "With the hard work I put in, it makes sense. Just the way the season panned out for me, I did not expect it. I thought I was going to be a pretty decent player, but nobody thought I would put up the numbers that I did."