Illinois assistant coach Ron West successfully recruited three football players from Georgia and South Carolina who will join the team this summer. Add Atlanta's Darius Caldwell, recruited by assistant coach Chip Long, to the mix, and the Illini have begun to carve out a viable recruiting territory according to West.
"What it did was, we got Caldwell from Mays High School, we got Valdon Cooper from Elberton County. Then we got Ralph Cooper from over in Fairfield Central near Columbia and an hour and 20 minutes South of there we got a kid out of Bamberg in Zeph Grimes. So this gave us four kids within a four hour radius of each other in the Southeast, which helps you build relationships and build new roads in those areas.
"Coach (Ron) Zook has made it very specific that he wants to recruit Georgia. The year before, we went to Georgia and signed the tight end out of Woodstock Evan Wilson. He came in and started. So it's obvious Georgia's got good players, South Carolina's got good players. What we're trying to do is get in those areas and build some relationships and get some kids that can help us."
West says winning the Texas Bowl helped the Illini recruit the Southeast more than most realize.
"The biggest thing the bowl game did is it pole vaulted our program one more step. First of all, we needed to have a winning season. We were struggling; 6-6 is not what we intended to have. We had to work our tail off and got to 6-6, but what we needed was to finish strong with a winning season, which would help build some positive in the program and help us recruit.
"What happened to us, and one of the reasons we were talking about that area, a lot of people don't realize this but Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Georgia all went 6-7. It can happen anywhere, but what I'm saying is we just wanted to be a little bit better at 7-6 and try to go in there and get some of the kids.
"Tennessee is a good program, it's obvious that Georgia is a good program in the past. And then you're talking about Georgia Tech. I didn't even mention Clemson, who was 6-7. So you had four teams within a three hour radius of each other that are all 6-7."
Since most high school kids aren't aware of the history of college programs, they tend to compare schools on what they have done recently. In that respect, Illinois compared favorably this year.
"I think it's gonna help us for next year," West surmises.
West feels the Illini have a better starting point for recruiting this year than last. For one thing, there is a more positive vibe surrounding the program than last year, when competitors were using scare tactics to lure recruits away from the UI. But there are other reasons as well.
"I think the biggest thing right now is, we're in on some good kids. We've had a year with the new staff, and we're pretty much all adjusted. The advantage now is that everybody has their families moved, we don't have a lot of people leaving. One guy is leaving, but he got a promotion.
"So basically we're just trying to keep the thing going. Just keep working at it and improve the personnel by recruiting the right guys for the right spots."
With success, the Illini can recruit quality young men with a good academic background who are less likely to struggle in a college environment.
"Coach Zook makes it pretty clear; he doesn't want problems. We don't recruit problems, we try to recruit good people. People who can withstand what we have to do here.
"This is a special university. It's important for this university and this system, that we go out and recruit guys that can do well academically. We can't go recruit guys who can't do what we ask them to do. That's the most important thing here.
"It's a top institution that's recognized nationally. It's important that we go get a young man that's totally focused on getting a good college degree and not being just an average student and getting by."
Illinois coaches will not be limited by territory. They plan to recruit far and wide to find the best people.
"The biggest thing we want to do is expand all the areas and see as many good kids as we can to see the quality of the kid. Because Coach Zook has that recruiting board, and that board will be big, but he knows exactly what he wants at every spot. His whole thing is making sure he gets the right fit for Illinois. The key here is getting the right fit."
For West, that includes recruiting the talent-rich states of Louisiana and Texas as well.
"A year ago we got Houston Bates. He's a 3.0 student right now. He's from Covington, Louisiana. I got him right after I had gotten here. I was recruiting him, but we stumbled into him. He's gonna be a good player for us.
"There's so many kids in Louisiana and Texas. This year we got one running back from Texas. There's so many good players, we're gonna keep working Texas and Louisiana. Kids will go everywhere now."
The Illini have a staff of hard-working recruiters who are capable of finding and attracting top talent to the UI. West believes they don't have to do anything extraordinary to succeed.
"We don't have to do anything special, just keep working and working, and we'll get the right guy. This is what was so bad this year, we had to turn kids away. Coach Zook had to turn good players away because of numbers."