Seven midterm enrollees highlight Ron Zook's 2006 football recruiting class. Getting the benefit of winter conditioning and spring practice should allow most of these seven players to get onto the two-deep going into the fall. Junior college transfers Justin Sanders (free safety) and Antonio Steele (weakside linebacker) bring speed, aggressiveness, tackling skill and leadership to the defense and will compete for starting roles.
Freshmen enrolling early include wide receiver Marques Wilkins, punter/placekicker Kyle Yelton, cornerback and returner Dere Hicks, and offensive tackle Randall Hunt will also get their baptism of fire this spring and will be better players this fall because of it. Yelton may replace the graduated Steve Weatherford as the Illini punter this fall. Hicks gets an early jump on other recruits for playing time at cornerback. Hunt is an outstanding tackle prospect who is quite young and still developing. Spring ball may help him get some playing time this fall, although most freshmen offensive linemen will likely redshirt as they must gain strength and develop their bodies to play major college ball.
One other major recruit who arrived in time for second semester is Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington. A junior with two years of eligibility, Akim was expected to start at right tackle for the powerful Sooners last fall before a family crisis forced him to quit the team and leave the school. Millington is a man mountain at 6'-6", 320 pounds, and he is an exciting addition to the team. He is projected as a starter at tackle, and he could be just the man the Illini need to protect on passes and open holes for our talented running backs.
Analyzing the new recruits by position, it is obvious that Ron Zook added quality depth for nearly all positions on the team. This is especially true for defensive backs, offensive linemen, quarterbacks, tight end and wide receiver, positions of extreme need. Every athlete recruited has the possibility of early playing time. In fact, Zook sold playing time as one of the many attractive aspects of attending Illinois, and these athletes are coming to C-U expecting to compete right away.
Looking at the defensive backs first, the Illini brought in seven excellent prospects who have had experience playing the positions for which they were recruited. This may not sound unusual, but past Illini teams have often needed to move natural free safeties to cornerback, and this transition has not always proved successful. All four of the cornerbacks are experienced at playing cornerback and have the speed and hitting ability needed for the position.
Dere Hicks comes to Illinois from Roanoke, Virginia by way of Valley Forge (Pennsylvania) military school. A high school quarterback and Virginia hurdles champ, the quick Hicks made a successful transition to cornerback last fall. Hicks may get a chance to return kicks, and he says Coach Zook might also use him in the offensive backfield to take advantage of his running and pass catching skills. His 4.40 speed in the 40-yard dash will likely be utilized somewhere early.
Antonio Gully comes from St. Louis power Cardinal Ritter and is expected to develop into an outstanding cornerback. Lakeland, Florida cornerback Chris Duvalt has extreme speed (4.38 40-yard dash) and strong hitting ability that make up for his slight build. He was rated an All-American by one recruiting service and the 25th best cornerback in the country. He was a 1st team All-Stater in talent-rich Florida.
And possibly the most highly touted cornerback coming in is Vontae Davis out of Washington, D. C. Named the Gatorade Player of the Year in his area, Vontae brings size and strength as well as great speed (4.40) to the position. All four cornerbacks have a chance to play big minutes next fall because they have excellent coverage skills and closing speed as well as being secure tacklers.
Safety received a boost when junior college star Justin Sanders enrolled at midterm. The aggressive, hard hitting Sanders is the prototypical strong safety who loves to hit. And he is said to be the kind of mature leader our young team needs to go into battle. With a spring practice to acclimate to Zook's defensive playbook, Sanders could be a starter come fall.
Both Garrett Edwards and Travon Bellamy are likely to see playing time this fall as well. Edwards is a native Illinoisan who may compete for a starting job at free safety as he has the athleticism all coaches love. He played quarterback, running back and wide receiver as well as safety in high school, and he was a multiple threat playmaker. And Maryland's Bellamy comes highly rated as well. Bellamy is another burner with a recorded 4.40 dash time.
These three quality safeties, plus the four cornerbacks, all have a chance to see playing time this fall, either at their normal positions, as nickel or dime backs in passing defenses, or as a way of upgrading special teams. The cornerbacks, if they show maturity and can learn the defense quickly, can free one or both of last year's cornerbacks Alan Ball and Charles Bailey to move back to free safety, their natural position. It may take time for these youngsters to develop, but there is no doubt they will improve the quality of the Illini defense when they do.
As for linebacker, the aforementioned Steele is the younger brother of a former NFL athlete and has safety kind of speed while growing into a weakside linebacker. He is expected to challenge for a starting spot this spring and bring the kind of tackling and pursuit that Zook's defense requires. And he has leadership skills that can help stabilize a young and gun-shy defense.
Dustin Jefferson is the son of former Rockford star Ira Jefferson and brings intelligence and athleticism to the linebacker position. He also has good speed for the position. Rahkeem Smith, who signed originally with Illinois last year but needed a year of military school to get his grades in shape, has become a weightlifting phenom (31 reps of 225 pound without a warmup) while maintaining his speed. He improved by leaps and bounds this past fall, as evidenced by the number of elite-level schools who tried to sway him away from Illinois, and he will get a good look at outside linebacker.
Perhaps the most intriguing linebacker prospect is Anterio Jackson. Coming from a Chicago Public League school not known for football and surviving rough times in his personal life, Anterio is a strong, raw-boned, aggressive footballer. He is listed at 240 pounds right now, and he has the frame to put on additional weight. It is unknown at this time whether he will stay at linebacker or move to the defensive line. But once he learns the techniques of his position, wherever that is, Anterio could become an excellent defender.
Coach Zook wanted one or two more defensive tackles, but he will have to wait until next year to corral that rare but essential type of player. Even then, he may have recruited some players who can grow into quality defensive tackles. Jackson is one such player, and Jerry Brown is another. The St. Louisan Brown is a quick 245 pounder who has the frame to put on much weight. Brown is listed right now at defensive end, but he may ultimately have the potential to be a pass-rushing tackle.
And offensive lineman Brandon Jordan is reportedly interested in playing defensive tackle. As an explosive athlete who once high jumped 6'-6", Jordan may have the explosiveness to become a top defender. One source says he outplayed his more touted defensive tackle teammate Dexter Latimore (Ohio State) during their senior season.
Defensive ends are Antonio James and Clay Nurse, although Brown and Jackson may both begin there as well. Antonio James hails from football factory Massillon, Ohio, and he is considered by some to be one of the nation's biggest "sleeper" recruits because he didn't receive much early hype. But the 6'-5", 250 pounder had a great senior season with numerous sacks and is said to be a prototypical defensive end. If he reaches his potential, he will be a fine improvement along the defensive front.
Maryland's Nurse is described as a bigger version of Sirod Williams, the rookie who lettered for the Illini last fall. He is an aggressive and active pass rusher with excellent closing speed. Nurse only played two years of high school ball after moving with his family to Maryland from Guyana, so he has not yet reached his potential. He is described by Illini coaches as someone who plays with a passionate motor that never stops. It will be interesting to watch his development.
Indiana's Kyle Yelton enrolled at the second semester to begin his preparations to challenge the graduated Steve Weatherford for the starting punting job come fall. Averaging around 42 yards per punt with good hang time, Yelton was called by one source the third-best high school punter in the nation this year. It remains to be seen whether Yelton can, as a raw freshman, handle the swirling winds of Memorial Stadium and the pressure of kicking against college defenses, but he will get the first crack at the starting position.
The offensive line received a big boost with this recruiting class. Besides Millington and Hunt, the Illini also corralled Craig Wilson, Jon Asamoah, and Ryan Palmer. All are large and mobile, traits necessary in Zook's wide-open spread offense. Hunt and Palmer are both 6'-6" tall or taller and have quick feet. Palmer was named 1st team All-State in the largest division in Ohio, which is usually a good indicator of future college success.
Asamoah is likely destined for guard or center as he fills out his body. That is, if Illini defensive coaches don't try to steal him away due to his quickness in and out of his stance. Craig Wilson is described by Thornton coach Bill Mosel as one of his best offensive linemen ever. And Brandon Jordan may still end up on offense. This group compares favorably with any offensive line group the Illini have recruited for many years. In fact, they may be the most athletic and mobile group ever to matriculate to Illinois.
Tight end has been a position of weakness for the Illini, but the two recruited tight ends in this class offer much hope for the future. Michael Hoomanawanui is from nearby Bloomington, but he played for a small private school and didn't get much early publicity. Every indication is that Coach Zook expects Michael to compete for a starting berth as he has size, aggressiveness and excellent pass receiving skills. His hands are like vises, and he can use outstanding flexibility to make difficult catches in traffic.
Jeff Cumberland is a wide receiver in a tight end's body. He is big and fast. At least one recruiting service lists him as an All-American, and watching his film it is easy to see why. Linebackers simply can't keep up with him, and no one will outjump him. It is hard to remember the last time Illinois recruited a prototypical tight end, but Zook may have corralled two excellent ones.
Wide receiver is also a position of strength in this recruiting class. Marques Wilkins and Chris James both committed early, and they never wavered. Wilkins is already on campus preparing for spring ball. He is fast (4.40) and elusive and will likely be tried as a kick returner in addition to receiver.
Chris James is a warrior who will battle for every thrown ball. He is an outstanding overall athlete, even playing quarterback successfully in a pinch for his high school team. He will be a big threat as an inside receiver for his ability to make quick cuts and battle aggressively inside against linebackers and strong safeties. And he is good after the catch, showing speed and moves to free himself for long gains.
Perhaps the best deep threat among the receivers is Ohio's Joe Morgan. Boasting a 4.40 dash time and a long jump of 22'-11", Morgan has the blazing speed and explosive leaping ability to stretch any defense. He was a relative unknown going into his senior season or every top school in the country would have been after him. He averaged a whopping 26.1 yards per catch as a senior, with 9 of his touchdowns being 45 yards or longer. Coach Zook and staff are excited to see just how much pressure Morgan, Wilkins and James can put on a defense, so they will be given every opportunity to compete for playing time as freshmen.
Last but certainly not least is the quarterback position. There is no more important position on the team as a great signal caller can make the whole offense work properly and successfully. Coach Zook believes he may have recruited two performers who have the potential to lead the Illini offense to the promised land.
Eddie McGee is a developing quarterback out of Washington, D. C. He will be the Illini's tallest quarterback at 6'-4". But he also has a strong arm and good running skills. Coming from the same high school as pro star Byron Leftwich, McGee's arm strength compares favorably with Leftwich. Eddie will benefit from Coach Ed Zaunbrecher's quarterback tutelage as he is still quite raw and underdeveloped. But the second best player in D. C. is coming in ready to compete for early playing time. He was not scared off by the Illini's other quarterback recruit.
Of course, that other recruit is the well-publicized Isiah "Juice" Williams. Hailing from the same school that produced Illini great Dick Butkus (Chicago Vocational), Williams was invited to the "Elite 11" quarterback camp last summer and drew rave reviews for his arm strength. Supposedly, Juice can throw a footbal 80 yards in the air and can stand at one end of Illinois' indoor footbal facility and hit the wall at the other end. But arm strength is not his only asset.
Isiah also has excellent running skills, and his highlight tape shows tremendous ability to avoid the rush. Of course, players with this kind of ability sometimes flush from the pocket too soon, disrupting the play call. But if Juice can remain patient enough to learn the offensive system and develop the skills he will need to be a well-rounded multiple threat, he can put tremendous pressure on opposing defenses. He is raw and will need some time to develop, but his specialness is obvious.
This specialness appears to include leadership skills as well. Juice seems to be the kind of dynamic, positive personality who can lead his team on the field and attract other top athletes to Illinois. In fact, he has already been an enthusiastic recruiter, visiting with other prospective athletes and encouraging them to consider the Illini. Some believe he can be a "pied piper" to attract the players needed for an eventual National Championship run. At the least, Juice appears sincere in his efforts along those lines.
Isiah and Eddie may need time to develop, but they will be given every opportunity to compete for playing time as freshmen. It is a position of need, so the Illini may have some growing pains if one is getting serious playing time early. But they are both playmakers, and sometimes natural talent outweighs technique because of the need to win. Fall camp could get really interesting when Juice and Eddie are added to the mix.
And the same can be said for every position on the team. No one's starting position is secure with all the talent arriving this year. Only offensive line and defensive tackle may see the starters limited to upperclassmen due the need for maturity and strength that develops through several years of intense weight training at the college level.
At the least, Coach Zook has upgraded the speed and athleticism on campus, and this talent will show itself on the field this fall. The best teams are loaded with talented juniors and seniors, so the Illini might continue to struggle at times until these new players gain strength and experience. But competition for playing time will be fierce, making everyone better.
This could be the start of something big at Illinois. It may still be a year or two before the full impact of this recruiting class is known, but there is no doubt there has been a major upgrade. Coach Zook and his hard-working staff are to be commended on their great efforts.
And as many have already speculated, if we recruit this well after a 2-9 season, just think what is possible after a winning season!