Already, two high school linebackers from Memphis area schools seem headed toward big things at the University of Illinois. Jonathan Brown is a fixture at the WILL linebacker spot as a sophomore, and some insiders believe he is destined for a big career in the Big Ten and beyond. Meanwhile, true freshman Henry Dickinson already is getting second string reps both at WILL and MIKE. Coaches are salivating at what he can do.
"Jonathan came in and played as a true freshman and had a good year," said Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, also the team's linebackers coach. "We probably could have played him more. Right now, he's one of our better players on defense.
"Henry Dickinson has come in, and we have switched his position twice. He's still hanging in there, running with the 2's. He had a good scrimmage recently."
Koenning is the key conduit between the two regions, calling on his vast connections in West Tennessee to help forge the pipeline. He recruited both players and is excited about their potential. And the players couldn't be happier.
"First off, the reason I selected Illinois was, when I got up here, it felt like a family atmosphere," said Brown, a graduate of Christian Brothers High School. "It felt like home; it felt like definite love from all the players. I felt like that was what it was gonna take to win."
Dickinson, a product of Memphis University High School, speaks along similar lines.
"The scheme, the coaching, the players, just the sense of family up here," he said. "It's a great environment."
And it may just be the first round of this Memphis-to-Champaign thing, according to Koenning.
"It's not that far," he said. "It's a great environment and a fantastic education. Memphis is a city that has internal issues like a lot of big cities have. Champaign offers a safe, good college environment."
Travel to and from Memphis is easier than some might suspect.
"It's a straight interstate," Koenning explains. "There are signs right out of town that say, 'Memphis that way.' There are not too many places that say that. So you can get there relatively easily. There's a train and a bus too. So there's a lot of ways to get there."
Illini head coach Ron Zook, one of the nation's more tireless recruiters, is confident Memphis players will find the UI an attractive alternative if they have a chance to visit. For those worried about distance from home, Zook provides an interesting comparison.
"What's exciting is we're actually closer to Memphis than Knoxville," he said. "There's an awful lot of really good players down there. I think it's an area we can get some guys up here."
Brown and Dickinson use different travel methods, but both have found convenient methods of transportation.
"I used to take a bus, but now I drive back home," Brown relates. "It's only a six hour drive, so it's not really that far. And it's a straight shot. I really can't complain."
Dickinson finds the City of New Orleans train to his liking.
"I use Amtrak. It's a straight shot, overnight, you can sleep the whole way. Get on a train, go to sleep and you are in Memphis."
Dickinson counters concerns about climate differences between Illinois and Tennessee.
"I understand the mindset of kids in the South staying in the South. But really the change is not great at all. The summers are a heck of a lot better. You know, you can always bundle up, but you can only take so much off during the summer heat."
Players receptive to Koenning's recruiting approach are reminded of other factors favoring the University of Illinois.
"You can't beat the education, and you can't beat the campus environment," Koenning states. "So I think that's a good path for a lot of guys who say, 'Hmm, that might be a good place for me to go.'
"This year, Memphis is loaded. It's the best since I can remember. We've got to get some guys to take notice and think of Illinois as an opportunity. We're gonna need some help, particularly on defense. We don't have many numbers on defense, and we're gonna need to get a lot of players. Other positions too."
Koenning has a strong background in Memphis. He coached there from 1988 to 1996, and many of his former players still reside there. Some are coaches in the area.
"A good friend of mine became Athletic Director of the city schools and proceeded to placing all the guys that played for us. One of the things I'm most proud of as a person and a coach is having former players who have gone on and been mentors and coaches. There's no better mentor than a coach.
"I'm very proud of those guys; it warms my heart when I get to see them and see what they're doing with their own families and their players.
"There's a lot of guys that I hope trust me and know I'm a truthful person. I've got a whole lot of former players who are high school coaches there. They're my friends, and I hope they understand that I'm not just blowing smoke."
Keith Spann is a former Memphis player now in his first year as head coach at Wooddale High School. Koenning calls him one of his first sons, and the respect is mutual.
"He recruited me out of Memphis when I was in high school," Spann said. "He was one of the first people to even contact me on the phone. This is my first high school job, so I got to see him for the first time in a long time. I miss Coach Vic."
There are at least three Division 1 seniors on Spann's team this year. He also has several underclassmen with outstanding potential. Spann recommends Koenning highly.
"I would definitely recommend any kid to be interested in Coach Koenning. He's a football guy, he knows the game. He's a family man as well.
"I know he was kind of like a father figure to me when I was at Memphis. You could ask him anything. He'd give you an opinion if you had a problem with something and try to help you. He's a good guy."
Ridgeway High School may have even more prospects than Wooddale. Head coach Duron Sutton also played for Koenning at Memphis and recommends him highly.
"Coach Koenning is a great guy and an able coach," Sutton said. "He's probably a better guy than he is a coach. I don't mean that in a bad way. He's got a good personality, and he cares about people. He'll do whatever it takes to try to help you any way he can to help you be successful."
Sutton says 6 or 7 of his present seniors will sign with D-1 schools this year, and he has five juniors he feels will be top prospects next season. He wouldn't be surprised to see Illinois become a factor for his players and other big-time recruits in the area.
"It's just one of those things where Memphis kids need to see where Illinois is coming down this way," he said. "They've got a couple guys up there. They need to come back and speak kindly of the school."
That is happening. Brown and Dickinson are enjoying themselves and are projected to have outstanding careers. Brown is already helping with other Memphis prospects.
"Coach Vic is always asking me about local talent we have," Brown said. "I tell him about the prospects I know. Hopefully we can get some of them up here."
Brown's message to Memphis prospects is simple but revealing.
"Come on up here so we can plant a tree from the South."
Zook is confident the Illini can make further inroads in Memphis.
"You've got one guy who starts and another who will play a lot. People in Memphis can see that these two guys are doing well socially, they're doing well academically and on the football field. Maybe they ought to take a look at it.
"If we can get them on campus, I think we have a chance. They always have a lot of talent, and we want to tap into that and get some of them."