Illinois is back in the game. After many years of mediocre football recruiting, Coach Ron Zook has the Illini competing with the elite schools for top football talent. That is the conclusion one can reach upon evaluating Zook's first full year of recruiting for his new school.
Illini fans could only imagine what recruiting was like at Big 10 powers Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State prior to Zook's arrival. Accustomed to getting early commitments from decent young men whose main alternatives for college were midlevel programs, many Illini fans were unprepared for the recruiting methods one must employ to compete for the best talent. It was an eye-opening experience to watch Coach Zook corral a quality recruiting class despite a losing record. And it allows us to project into the future for what might be possible once the Illini climb back among the elite in the conference and around the country.
By personal count, the Illini offered at least 137 athletes scholarships to attend Illinois sometime during the past year. This number is inexact because some athletes might confuse a suggestion of a possible offer with a written promise of a scholarship. And we likely offered a few five-star players who never felt compelled to include Illinois among those who offered them scholarships. Illinois signed 28 players to scholarship tenders, so it is obvious that many scholarships must be offered to fill a recruiting class. But the number offered by Zook is likely around double what was offered yearly by Ron Turner and his staff.
Offering great players scholarships is not the same as recruiting them, and one could argue the Illini wasted their time trying to recruit against USC, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, etc., since we couldn't outrecruit these teams for top players. But Zook can't get a great player to Illinois until he offers him a scholarship and then competes toe to toe with other great schools all the way until signing day. One must accept frequent defeat in order to register a few great victories at the top levels of the recruiting game.
Perseverence and great energy are essential in recruiting, and Coach Zook and staff have this in abundance. Nearly every interview with prospective athletes yields compliments about the engaging personalities and unbounded energy of Zook and his staff. Most seem convinced Zook will get things turned around at Illinois, whether they plan to attend Illinois or not. This is undoubtedly due to our football coaches' abilities to brag about Illinois and paint a rosy picture of the future.
Belief in future success is essential in convincing young stars to consider your school. Some recruiters are so good at salesmanship they can sell any school to a recruit. But a true belief in a positive future makes that sales job much easier. Coach Zook is so convincing when glorifying the University of Illinois that even doubters must reconsider their positions. And his staff is composed of quality salesmen who appear to share Zook's optimistic vision.
When Zook enters a recruit's home and meets his family, he makes a super impression. He can't convince all great players to switch allegiances from their favorite schools to Illinois, but he can make them at least think about it. Once that is accomplished, Zook can use his perseverence and great work ethic to keep Illinois forward in the recruit's mind. Letters, phone calls, emails, text messages and personal contact all aid this cause. And each assistant is hired with his recruiting abilities in mind, so each has the same strong inner drive to succeed. Zook likely outworks them all, but they must be hard workers to remain on staff.
One thing is obvious about Coach Zook and recruiting. He has developed positive relationships with numerous people over 27+ years of coaching, and he takes advantage of these relationships in recruiting. It appears that many coaches of players Zook formerly coached trust him with their newest prospects and help Zook recruit them. Obviously, many view Zook as a quality person and coach and want him to coach and care for their players. There are so many high school and junior college coaches who trust Zook that one must wonder why this was not also the case with Illinois' previous coach.
It is also obvious that Zook knows how to communicate with young people despite age differences. This is no small feat since Illinois has often been saddled with head coaches who had difficulty relating to younger generations. One can now be excited to hear Coach Zook is visiting a prospective recruit in his home because we know he has a chance with that recruit once there. This is in sharp contrast to the efforts of former Illini coaches like Bob Blackman, John Mackovic, and Ron Turner, who lacked the people skills and ambition that Zook has in abundance.
The Illini coaches can't compete against the power colleges for academically qualified top-100 players yet; a few wins on the playing field will be necessary to compete on even terms with the power schools. So they did need to take some chances on a few players with great potential who are on the borderline academically. But most if not all of the 28 are expected to qualify for immediate eligibility come the fall. If one or two are lost along the way, Zook will likely help them find a prep school where they can gain their eligibility and be rerecruited next year.
There are supposedly a couple top players who didn't sign scholarship tenders who are being placed in prep schools with the idea of attending Illinois next year. One or two more may join them, depending on their second semester high school grades and/or their results on the qualifying ACT or SAT tests. Fortunately, Zook has recruited players from several prep schools in the past and knows how to take advantage of those schools which are legitimately trying to help kids improve their grades and qualify for a four-year college.
One big selling point for Zook and Company this year was early playing time. Many top athletes want to play as freshmen. Although they must be extremely athletic to compete with fifth-year college seniors, some are capable of doing so. If they want early playing time, they can have it at Illinois, as recent losing seasons can attest.
Thus, most of the 28 recruits will be given a chance to make the two-deep come fall. Initially, this will make us vulnerable to mature teams; we will make hurtful mistakes whenever raw freshmen are in the game. But they might not have come to Illinois in the first place if they were just going to be redshirted. Some undoubtedly will be redshirted, and many would benefit from it, but don't be surprised to see many of them on the field this fall.
Of course, eventually Zook will emphasize that early opportunity less as athletes' need to be on a winning team balances their desire for freshman playing time. Still, the best players are unafraid of competition, so Zook will try to recruit those who believe they are good enough to play early in their careers despite the presence of quality upperclassmen.
Zook looks for players wherever he can find them. He recruited players from high schools, prep schools, military schools, and junior colleges. And he recruited in states past Illini coaches have rarely if ever visited. Eventually, Zook and his staff want to recruit nationally, at least on a selected basis. Texas and California are two states that were not hit hard this year, but the quantity of great players in those populous states makes them fair targets for future Zook quests. Zook seems willing to do whatever it takes within the rules to get Illinois back into the national football picture.
One can learn something about Coach Zook's football philosophy by studying his recruiting. First of all, he recruits Speed with a capital "S". His offensive and defensive philosophies require an abundance of speed to be successful, and he has upgraded the speed of nearly every position on the field.
He recruited offensive linemen with quick feet and good lateral quickness. The best schools always have large offensive linemen who run like linebackers despite their bulk. These are hard to find, but the Illini appear to have found a few who are quick enough to block moving linebackers and prevent dominant pass rushers from reaching the quarterback. Zook appears to agree with the philosophy of the top football schools that recruit tight ends and defensive linemen with speed and then convert them to offensive linemen.
The same is true for most other positions as well, especially defense. He recruits cornerbacks to bulk up and play safety, safeties to grow into undersized but speedy linebackers, linebackers to become hard-charging defensive ends, and defensive ends to evolve into quick defensive tackles. Given 3-4 years of solid recruiting, Illini fans will find their beloved team boasting numerous defensive stars who have competed successfully against the best the Big 10 has to offer. They will be able to tackle fast opponents for little or no gain, a vast contrast to the preceding few years.
Offensively, wide receiver and quarterback will always be important positions on the team. It appears Zook wants big, strong receivers to line up opposite opposing cornerbacks. The top teams have 200-pound cornerbacks who also run fast, and they have used their athleticism in the past to hold up Illini receivers at the line. The biggest, strongest receivers can fight those cornerbacks when the ball is in the air, they can withstand the pounding of vicious hits, and they can struggle for extra yardage after the catch.
The fastest receivers, and there is no doubt Zook will continue to recruit the fastest ones possible, may sometimes line up in the slot. This will allow them to speed past the safeties or linebackers assigned to them. One way or the other, the Illini need receivers who are at least as fast as their opponents, and this past class of three men fits that description well. Tight end Jeff Cumberland may also initially line up as a wide receiver despite his 6'-4", 230 pound frame since he has the speed of a wide receiver.
Quarterback recruiting should be fun to watch every year of Coach Zook's tenure at Illinois. Incoming freshmen Isiah Williams and Eddie McGee are both a little raw around the edges yet, but they both have strong arms and excellent running skills. As Illinois' offense begins to jell in the near future, we will see more and more outstanding quarterbacks considering Illinois because of the diversity of its offense and the athleticism of its members. Likely, Illinois will recruit at least one quarterback each year, and some of these will likely have talent beyond which Illini fans have seen on campus since the Mike White years.
It is always a blessing when a football player can begin his college career second semester since he can have the benefit of spring practice before his first fall campaign in an Illini uniform. This year, there were a number of scholarships available for this purpose, and the Illini took advantage by bringing in seven quality players. Justin Sanders and Antonio Steele arrived from junior college, but they were qualifiers out of high school and could leave junior college without having to graduate first. They will be given every opportunity to compete for starting positions at strong safety and weakside linebacker, respectively.
Freshman Dere Hicks is among our fastest squadmen already, and he will have the spring to compete for playing time and possibly a starting position at cornerback due to a lack of depth there. Shifty wide receiver Marques Wilkins and punter Kyle Yelton will also get many looks with the varsity with Yelton penciled in as the next Illini punter.
Big offensive lineman Randall Hunt came here with Hicks from military school. He plays a position where experience is essential, but he has the kind of athleticism and size the Illini need at the important left tackle position. And likely tackle starter Akim Millington, a good looking 6'-6", 320 pounder, transferred from Oklahoma and is immediately eligible. Early reports indicate that all seven new enrollees are making a positive impression in winter conditioning. Watching these young men will make spring practice a treat. Our team will be better this fall from having them on campus this spring.
Football recruiting is now a year around job, and Coach Zook and his staff are already well into junior recruiting. It is likely they will try to wait even longer to obtain commitments from top players as Illini football gains more credibility. After all, the best players know they will receive a scholarship, so they can hold out for the best situations. Too many early commitments, especially from in-state players, have prevented the recruitment of quality late-deciders in the past, but this tendency will likely be reversed under Coach Zook.
It is also likely they will try to "recruit-over" every athlete presently on campus. In other words, they will always strive to obtain the best players possible. So while many Illini fans become loyal to those presently on the team, they will need to permit Zook to replace their favorite players with other, better players whenever possible. After all, a winning team capable of competing for Big 10 and National Championships must have its best possible personnel at all times. This is something Coach Zook and his staff understand quite well, and Illini fans will eventually become accustomed to this more aggressive approach.
Those who love following football recruiting will enjoy the next few years. Finally, we have a chance to compete again. Finally, we have a chance to return the University of Illinois to the lofty position of prominence it once enjoyed in football. We still must coach the players on the field, and we must beat outstanding opponents to have winning records and bowl bids. But if we can beat those same schools for a few recruits every year, we will eventually be able to beat them on the field.
Coach Zook has given Illini fans new optimism with his outstanding recruiting. If we can give these young athletes a chance to mature and gain experience, it will likely be worth the wait.