While it was not rated highly by the so-called recruiting gurus, Illinois line coach and recruiting coordinator Joe Gilbert is excited about the most recent football signing class.
"We signed another really solid class of great kids. I think their potential is as good as anybody in the country. People rate them this and that from the different sites, but the bottom line is these kids fit what we're looking for to play in our system. I think that's the one thing we've done here the last couple years."
Last year's class was downgraded also, yet several of them played extensively as freshmen.
"The class we got last year, all those kids might not have been highly ranked, but you're looking at Jay Prosch, Evan Wilson, Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford, right on down the line. Those guys right there played in the Big 10 as freshmen, and they're gonna be great football players. I think we got a similar class this year."
Illinois looks for players who fit their system.
"That's exactly what we did. A lot of people get caught up in recruiting stars, and the public gets caught up with stars. They don't do their homework on kids as far as evaluation and film.
"The bottom line is we got kids that fit our system, that every coach here has evaluated and said this kid has a chance to be a good player for us regardless of how many stars, who's recruiting them or whatever.
"There's a lot of people playing in the NFL that were playing in a Division II school or 1-AA school and weren't playing at the major colleges and are pretty good football players. People lose sight of that a little bit because of the Internet and whatnot."
No talent expert or recruiting website can possibly evaluate all prospective football players. They rely on recommendations of coaches, but more than anything they watch them do drills in camps and combines. Gilbert points out that many prospects can't take part in these special events.
"Some of these kids don't have the money or the means to get to all these camps. If they don't get to a camp, they get marked down as a two-star or three-star."
It is also true that performance in drills does not always equate with playing the game.
"When you watch them on high school football film, we're not running 40 yard dashes with our shorts on. We're not jumping over cones or going through tires or ropes. We are playing the game of football, so we watch them with their pads on.
"A lot of kids play as good as some of these 3 and 4-star guys but don't go to these camps or all these colleges. The bottom line is, put the film on and see if the kid can play. If he can, then you want to recruit him.
"A lot of times, you get these guys who can run a great 4.5 and are the prettiest thing on the face of the Earth, but when you put them in pads they play like 4.9. And they may not be very physical, might not be a tough kid, and yet they get these rankings based on what they do at these combines."
No two people see things exactly the same way. What may be appealing to one coach might be repulsive to another. What one recruiter might call a 4-star prospect, another might call a 2-star prospect.
"There's no exact science in this thing. That's what you tell a high school coach. My evaluation of an offensive lineman, I'm not saying I'm right 100% of the time because I'm not. I'm gonna miss on kids, I'm gonna find a kid or two. It goes both ways. It's kind of the eye of the beholder type thing."
Illinois coaches are not instructed to find and recruit the best players in their areas. As Gilbert explains, recruiting is based on an understanding of team needs.
"I think the biggest thing we do is we sit down and say, 'What are we looking for in every position? What fits us, what fits what we are doing with schemes.'"
The present Illini coaching staff has the ability to work together. No one is trying to blaze his own trail or recruit to make himself more appealing for future jobs. Everything is for the team.
"One thing our staff did a great job of is everybody worked together. It doesn't matter who's getting guys, the bottom line is we're all out there working to find the best fit for the University of Illinois. And we did that.
"The biggest thing here is no one is trying to force a kid down another person's throat just to say we recruited a kid. If I say no to a kid, I say no to the kid and move on to the next one. If I've got a great player, someone on the defensive side of the ball, if they don't like him I move on. They've got to coach him, not me."
Illini coaches consider the needs of the players they are recruiting also.
"The last thing I want to do is bring a kid in here that they don't want or we don't want. Then the kid's not happy because he's not playing, I'm miserable because I'm hearing the kid can't play. So to me, it makes no sense."
In the history of Illinois football, there have always been a couple coaches who haven't carried their share of the load in recruiting. This year, every assistant coach signed at least one player, and they maintained contact with several others as backup plans. Gilbert confirms there are no slackers in the group.
"Coach (Zook) has a staff now where everybody works hard. There is a year or two where a guy doesn't find a guy. It does fall that way sometimes. Either the kids aren't interested, or the guys you had on your radar get picked up by somebody else. So there's different reasons.
"Everybody on the staff worked their tails off. They did a great job of evaluating the kids in their area. And there's guys we kind of hung onto until the end, guys we recruited and recruited, called and wrote and did things with, and then all of a sudden, with the way the whole thing works as January rolls around, we decide to go with this guy. But we get him in here, he has a good visit and we end up getting him.
"And even now, everyone is evaluating and trying to get their lists down to get ready for the spring."
Some websites create lists of the top recruiters in the country each year. They base the evaluations on the number of top-rated players they personally recruited to their school.
Illinois assistants won't be on those lists. In part, they are recruiting for the school and not themselves. But Gilbert believes there's another aspect to these judgments that has little to do with recruiting skill.
"I have my own opinion about the 'superstar recruiters.' You walk into a school, and you work for Alabama and they have a perception of the school. Or a Texas or whatever. Right, wrong or indifferent, that's a reality.
"I know a lot of coaches in the profession that couldn't recruit when they were in a smaller school. But put another logo on their shirt, and they become a national recruiter. Common sense tells you why they are a 'national recruiter.' The bottom line is, does your team win? Is your team successful with who you're bringing in?"
Recruiting is a time-consuming process. And there are tons of distractions that interfere along the way, including the fall season where game preparations take up most of each coach's day. There are also dead periods where they are not permitted to call or visit prospects.
Illini assistants have been working hard on talent evaluations and handing out verbal scholarship offers prior to spring ball. They then have a month where they can travel to schools for more personal evaluations.
There are summer camps and unofficial visits during the spring, summer and fall. And then the recruiting picks up for the final push after the end of the fall season. It is an endless process.
"You hope by the end of spring, as you come out of it, you're down to maybe 20-30 guys each which you can manage. And then at the end of summer, you go into the season with maybe 10-15 guys at the most that you're recruiting. It's hard to do any more than that.
"If you can get one or two guys out of that 10-15 guys that you're recruiting, then you've done a pretty good job. If every coach signs two really good players, you've got a hell of a class."