The status of offensive lineman Hugh Thornton, who survived a strained-neck scare vs. Northern Illinois on Sept. 18, now is up in the air because the sophomore from Oberlin, Ohio, was arrested in connection with a weekend fight at Joe's Brewery in Champaign. The matter is complicated by the fact that this is Thornton's second under-age drinking incident. He received 12 months of court supervision after the first incident, on Sept. 20, 2009.
``I really have nothing yet to comment on. There's still too much gray out there,'' Zook said Tuesday, adding that he also will consult with athletic director Ron Guenther this week to decide on the status of Thornton and bandit Michael Buchanan, who was arrested on DUI charges after Illinois' opener against Missouri.
On the medical front, it appears that receiver/backup quarterback Eddie McGee (sprained ankle) will be available, while ace cornerback Terry Hawthorne (foot fracture) won't play. Nate Palmer (toe), who was backing up Buchanan at the bandit (defensive end/linebacker hybrid) in training camp, is likely to return. Fullback/tight end Zach Becker (broken foot), a projected starter, also has been cleared to play.
Thornton and Buchanan are the latest in a string of Illinois football players who have had brushes with the law. It includes Walt Aikens, who was dismissed from the team in August because of a burglary incident after starting four games at safety late last year.
That's three starters with legal problems in a short period of time. And that's pretty embarrassing, to say the least, for the image of a school like Illinois.
``I don't think there's any question you worry about it,'' Zook said. ``As we tell them all the time, we represent the University of Illinois. We take it personally.''
Zook, who's fighting for his coaching life this fall, added, howeer, that scrapes with the law are not unique to the Illini.
``If you go around the country, unfortunately, we [coaches] all deal with it, we all have it,'' he said. ``Some things are worse than others. But certainly you worry about it, just like you worry about your own children and how they act.''
The Illini coach, who played for some highly successful Miami of Ohio teams in the '70s, couldn't help but think about some of the antics of those players when several of his former teammates came to Champaign for an Illinois game and mini-reunion earlier this month.
``It's changed,'' Zook said. ``About 12 of the guys I played with were here. That's a group that lost one game. As I told them, `None of us would have been here.' But times are different, and rightfully so. [Today's players] are held to a different level of behavior, and it's important that we continue to do that.''
But that makes things tough for a coach on the hot seat who's trying to prepare for a team that's ranked second in the nation.