GREEN BAY — Two years away from the sideline was enough for Ron Zook — he wanted back in.
So when Packers coach Mike McCarthy called with an opportunity to return to the profession in which he had worked more than three decades, Zook jumped at the chance to interview.
McCarthy gave him the job. Meet the new assistant special teams coach for Green Bay.
“No, I didn’t have to think about it at all,” Zook said Monday at Lambeau Field.
At Green Bay, he’ll assist special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. No ego problems here, even if Zook was once the head coach of major college programs at Florida and Illinois.
“To me, I was able to get back in coaching for the reasons I got into coaching,” Zook said. “Because I love the game. You love the relationships you have with the players, the relationships you have with the coaches.”
The addition of Zook was part of a handful of offseason changes to McCarthy’s staff, necessitated in part by the departures of quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo to become offensive coordinator of the New York Giants; and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who left to spend more time with family.
Alex Van Pelt, a former NFL backup quarterback, replaces McAdoo after coaching running backs for two seasons. Assistant head coach Winston Moss, who concentrated on inside linebackers last year, will be responsible for overseeing all four linebacker positions in coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme.
Like the rest of the team, the defense was mired by injuries, and playing without pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews for much of the year stung. Green Bay struggled against the run in the second half of the season and didn’t have enough playmakers.
“Our defense is going to change some. You don’t ever stay the same,” McCarthy said. “We obviously need to get better on defense, and I think these moves that we’ve made on defense will definitely put us on that path.”
Sam Gash replaces Van Pelt as the running backs coach. Gash, who had a 12-year NFL career at fullback, previously spent six seasons as the running backs coach for NFC Central rival Detroit until 2012.
Gash and Van Pelt played together for a couple seasons in Buffalo. Now it’ll be Gash’s responsibility to tutor 1,100-yard rusher Eddie Lacy, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But other than the veteran Capers, few assistants on McCarthy’s staff have Zook’s extensive experience.
Zook will enter his 35th year in the profession, with his most notable stops as head coach at Florida (2002-4) and Illinois (2005-11). He’s 122-57 overall as a college head coach, including a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2007.
But that 9-4 season with the Illini turned out to be the high point in Champaign. He was fired after a 6-6 season in 2011.
Since then, he’s worked on a college show for CBS, and as business development officer for Gateway Bank in Florida.
He needed a break from coaching in the first season after Illinois, but the itch returned last year. He said he had other opportunities, but was looking at “being in a situation where you’re in it for the right things, you’re in it for the right reasons.”
The Saints defensive coordinator for two seasons starting in 2000, Zook lived with McCarthy while his now-new boss was offensive coordinator there at the same time. Zook’s NFL resume also includes a stint as a Steelers special teams coach from 1996-98.
McCarthy noted Zook’s energetic personality as one of a strength, and harkened back to their competitive days matching wits as coordinators.
“That’s something that I always admired of him and also frankly the fact that he’s gone on and he’s been a head coach and he’s built two programs,” McCarthy said. “That’s something that I think will definitely be a benefit to our program and a benefit to myself.”
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