Ron Zook enjoyed the culmination of an extremely long recruiting process as each of 27 signed letters of intent crossed his fax machine.
"It's a really good day for the Illini Nation. It was a lot of fun. This is a group of guys the Illini Nation is going to be very proud of in the years to come."
Zook had plenty of people to thank, including a large number of support staff who work tirelessly throughout the year to make signing day possible. More than anyone, he thanked his assistant coaches, each of whom was responsible for bringing in at least one player. Twelve states were represented, meaning tremendous amounts of travel and effort for everyone on the staff.
Illinois players also played a major role according to Zook.
"I want to thank the players. Your players are your best ambassadors. They've always done a great job. The parents always rave about our guys.
"Just the whole attitude of our players toward our team, they're excited. Our players helped the (prospects) on weekends to get to know more about our team and how we do things. The players did a great job, and a lot of that has to do with having a good feeling."
Zook singled out defensive tackle Corey Liuget for special recognition. He gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. He was under no obligation, but he was at the recent football banquet and spent time with a large group of prospects visiting that weekend.
"Corey was here the banquet weekend, and he did a great job recruiting them. He was telling them they should come to the University of Illinois because of the people and how they're gonna take care of you. How they're gonna stay on you and make you get your degree when you don't want to do those things. Corey wishes he was still here."
Zook said all major team needs were met with this class.
"The thing we did was, we addressed needs across the board. We brought in some of everybody. The offensive line, you always want to strengthen the offensive line. You always want the offensive and defensive lines to be as solid as you can. We got Reilly O'Toole committed; the quarterback position is very important as well. Of course the two running backs."
The class is not top-heavy with four and five star players, the kind most fans assume must be recruited. Zook believes he and his assistants are better at the evaluation process than the talent evaluators. They pay no attention to the rankings others provide.
"Everybody we signed today, it remains to be seen what kind of college career they're gonna have. But I feel very good about our process, the way we evaluate talent and the way we evaluate people. I feel it is very comparable to last year's class. I still think last year's class was the best, top to bottom, that we've had since we've been here.
"We have the philosophy of trying to recruit guys who fit our system and fit us at the University of Illinois. I don't pay any attention to stars, it's just if this guy can help our program reach its goals, graduate from this university and have sound character. Those are the three things we look at. The stars don't necessarily equate to the type of players they are."
How many will play as freshman? Zook cannot estimate a number since many factors are involved. But he does encourage the recruits to prepare as if they will play.
"We tell our guys we expect them all to come in and play as freshmen. I believe if you don't expect to play, you have no chance of playing. And then you make that decision once they get here, how they handle all the academic pressures and athletic pressures. Our guys are excited to be here, and we're excited to have them. They're gonna have an opportunity to play."
The NCAA requires a maximum of 25 new recruits any one year, and the Illini over-signed by 2. That means two players on the present list will not be on the roster this fall. Academics is an issue in some cases, so there will likely be a couple players who have to wait until next January to sign or might have to go the prep school or junior college route. Zook wouldn't offer specifics.
"There's 27 guys, but you just have to see how that all works out. Those guys know exactly where they're at and what they have to do. We'll see how it plays out."
The last one to sign may be one of the best. Louisville, Kentucky, tight end Jon Davis is a 6'-3", 235 playmaker who the Illini hope to utilize in a variety of ways including pass receptions and running the ball. He had been committed to Kentucky for a year but changed his mind the last few weeks.
"We got back involved with Jon a few weeks ago. Jeff Brohm, Chip (Long) and Paul (Petrino) all three had an awful lot to do with it. All the offensive guys went to watch him play basketball. It was just a matter of getting everything out on the table, for him to see what we're all about.
"I think they had a great visit and had a pretty good feel not only for our football team, but what the University can do for him academically. We were fortunate enough to get him."
Any talk of offensive players must begin with quarterback. Zook feels the Illini landed the player they most wanted in Wheaton Warrenville South's Reilly O'Toole.
"One of the great things about this offense is the flexibility. The guy this last year at Arkansas (Ryan Mallett) is a big physical guy, drop-back passer, good offense. A guy like Nathan (Scheelhaase) ran a pretty good offense for us.
"We singled out Reilly early. You rank all these guys, and Jeff Brohm and Paul settled on this guy. He's who we wanted. He happened to be in our state, happened to be a two-time state champion, happened to be a great, athletic basketball player, happened to be from a great family.
"There's a reason why he's won as many games as he's won. He's gonna continue right on winning. He's a big guy, a physical guy, great arm, can move and run the option. He can do it all."
"Reilly has a great upside with his strong arm and ability to throw the ball down the field. One of the things we use to evaluate for quarterbacks is being a winner. And he is just that, a two-time state champion. He has a great passion for the game. I am really excited about using him in the play action game and throwing the ball down the field."
With Mikel Leshoure leaving for the NFL a year early, the Illini needed to find an adequate replacement. Zook described the two guys they signed, Joliet Catholic's Josh Ferguson and Texan Donovonn Young.
"I don't think you can have too many running backs. We went in thinking we would take one, but then when there was a pretty good chance Mikel would come out, we decided to go with two.
"We fell in love with Josh Ferguson at camp. Coach Petrino couldn't get enough of him. He's a classy guy from a great family. He's got great quicks, great hand-eye coordination, and he's got great ball skills. You can get him out of the backfield, you can get him in a receiver position. He runs routes like a receiver.
"Donovonn, when I saw him at the bowl game, he looked like an NFL running back. He's a big, powerful guy. He's from a great high school program, a school that's turned out a lot of players. DeAndre (Smith) did a great job recruiting him and the family."
"It was a good mix of talents at the wide receiver position. We got a big, tall guy in Kenny Knight who can catch the ball down the field. We have a guy who will be able to make plays after the catch in Jordan Frysinger. And Jeremey Whitlow is very polished in his routes and should have a bright future for us."
Frysinger was not well known, but he averaged over 15 yards per carry as a running back and has tremendous flexibility, speed and leaping ability. Zook is impressed.
"There's no question Jordan's a very talented, athletic guy. He could be a tailback. He's a guy you want to get the ball in his hands. I don't think you can have too many playmakers on your team. He's gonna prove to be a playmaker for us."
One of the top-rated players on the team is defensive back Dondi Kirby. The Pennsylvania star had ACL surgery last summer but should be 100% this June when he reports for summer school.
"It happened in June, so he'll be a year out, which is good. We had the doctors get involved with that before we went further. I know his high school coach fairly well, recruited his son. There's no question whether Dondi can play or not, he's a baller.
"I think he can either be a big corner, or he can play safety. He can play any of the positions back there. Those are the kind of guys you like to have. Dondi can play wherever he is needed the most. Those are the guys that to me become special players."
Defensive line was an area of need, and it appears the Illini addressed that as well. Defensive tackles Clint Tucker (6'-2", 285), Willie Beavers (6'-5", 310) and Chris Jones (6'-5", 305) look especially exciting in their senior film. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning looks forward to having them join the program.
"We needed to improve the depth at DT, and we were able to do that with the three guys we brought in. They will improve as they pick up the speed of the game and should be big contributors for us."
Zook provided a big smile when asked about the three tackles.
"Big, quick, athletic, everything you want in a defensive tackle. Guys who can hold the middle down. Chris Boles (Ohio offensive lineman) and Clint Tucker played in an All-Star game together. He was telling how Clint was doing back flips and somersaults.
"They're athletic guys. Willie is a big, physical guy. That's what you have to have in this league, and any league for that matter."
Five offensive linemen were added, including two left tackles the Illini needed for depth. Pat Flavin and Scott McDowell have the quickness and explosiveness for the left tackle role. Guard Ted Karras is from the famed Karras family and plays with an aggressive mean streak. Center Tony Durkin and guard Boles should also vie for playing time early in their careers.
A number of these players have a chance to play this next season if they learn their positions and adapt quickly enough. Regardless, they should anchor the Illini football team for several years to come.