Outside linebackers coach Ron West has a number of close recruiting contacts in the Southeast and South. He mined those areas for three top prospects who will be enrolling at Illinois this summer. Among them is South Carolina defensive back Zeph Grimes. Most assumed West would be coaching Grimes at SAM linebacker, but that may not be the case.
"Right now we're looking at Grimes at safety," West explains. "We could wind up moving Zeph Grimes there. He's one of the guys we thought about. We thought he'd be very athletic.
"He reminded us of a safety we had at Clemson called Jamaal Fudge, who played in the NFL for awhile. So we ended up taking him thinking he would wind up at Cat safety or our SAM backer. Right now, I think he would be the top freshman if we're gonna move a guy in there. If we moved one of our safeties down, we could look at him at safety."
West got an early commitment from Grimes, and he became sold on his potential after watching him play for Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School.
"He was a high-motor young man. He was a guy that made a lot of plays. He had an opportunity to go play in a Shrine Bowl but played in the one in Charleston. He was well respected by a lot of coaches down there.
"He had speed, he was a 4.5 guy. He's 213 pounds, so he's strong. He's running track. He's just a good athlete and a good kid. We had had some kids at Clemson from that high school. And all of the kids we had from that school had done so well.
"So when the coach said this kid can play and got us on him, we decided to go ahead and take him. He had some places he could have gone, but he came up here early and liked it. He was the first kid to really commit for us from down there. And then he basically helped us get Ralph Cooper."
Cooper is from Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro, South Carolina, and he figures to challenge at an inside linebacker spot early in his career.
"Ralph is a team captain, does everything right, 4.0 student, good hard worker. Everybody's in love with him in his high school.
"More than anything, Ralph is a really instinctive football player. If he would have been another inch taller, we would have had to battle everybody in the Southeastern Conference for him. We battled a few ACC teams.
"The biggest thing about Ralph is the type of work ethic that he has. He's a big playmaker, a physical player. He's a 228 pound linebacker at 6'-0." He can run, can bend, very instinctive and just a hard-nosed kid who will work every day and give you everything he's got.
"We really like him. As a defensive staff, we had him ranked very high as one of the linebackers we wanted. We like him as a WILL or a MIKE."
West recruited cornerback Valdon Cooper out of Elbert County High School in Elberton, Georgia. He feels fortunate to attract such a special student-athlete to the UI.
"Valdon was probably the best athlete that I was on. Here's a kid who's a tremendous student, he's got appointments to the Naval Academy, the Air Force and the Army. He'll do well here academically. Appalachian State had offered him early, and then West Virginia came in and offered him. He had a lot of attention.
"But what happened there, it was just kind of one of them deals. The guy who had coached some guys I had recruited out of Bamberg, South Carolina, was now the defensive coordinator there. He was the head coach at Bamberg. He had called me.
"He swore by him. You look at his track times, he was a 24'-8" long jumper, he had been offered a scholarship by Clemson for the intermediate hurdles, he's a 10.5 type kid (100 meters). His program had been way down. This coaching staff came in, Sid Fritz and Coach (Ron) Duncan, built it back in one year and then went two years to the playoffs.
"I knew Valdon was a good student, a hard worker, and I felt like he could be a good fit for us for what we're looking for in a field corner. In the past, we've had speed guys but not real big guys. He's not a big, big kid, but he's a speed guy. He can flip his hips. We felt like he could fit what we were looking for."
Valdon Cooper can help Illinois in more ways than one.
"He's a running back. He could be a punt returner, kick returner. He's a guy who could really help us early. He played in the Georgia All-Star game and winded up beating out one of the corners there that's going to Georgia. He had an excellent game against good competition. So we thought he'd be a really good fit.
"You've got the whole deal. You've got speed, you've got the ability to jump, and you've got a smart young man, good young man. He comes from a pretty good family."
With these additions, the Illini have established a recruiting presence in the Southeast. West explains in part three how the Illini can continue to exploit that talent-filled area for future talent.