Through the Trifocals

The 2004 NFL draft has now come and gone. Out of the 255 athletes drafted, only five played high school ball in Illinois. That is a ratio of one out of every 51 draftees. Is the state of Illinois really a hotbed for high school football recruiting like has long been assumed? <br><br> Illinisports analyzes the draft and its implications for University of Illinois recruiting and won-loss records.

The state of Illinois is considered by many to be a hotbed of high school football. It is a common perception that, if the University of Illinois could recruit the best players in the state every year, we could compete for Big 10 and National Championships. But is that really true?

If Illinois produces great talent, then there should have been numerous Illinois players drafted in this past weekend's NFL draft. But there weren't, and there weren't last year either. Only five athletes who attended high school in Illinois were drafted this year out of 255 total picks, and none in the first two rounds. Rich Gardner of Penn State and Chicago Hales Franciscan was the first Illinois selection at the 92 spot of round 3. Others drafted were Glenn Earl of Notre Dame and Naperville North at 122, Michael Turner from Northern Illinois and North Chicago at 154, the Illini's Sean Bubin out of Rantoul at 159, and Tony Pape of Michigan and Hinsdale South was drafted in the seventh round at 221.

By comparison, I have utilized the NFL's own website to determine the home states for all 255 draftees. Allow me to share the states who produced the most athletes for this draft in descending order. California led the way with 32 total athletes. Texas followed with 29, and Florida had the next highest at 21 including six in the first round. Others included Ohio with 16, Pennsylvania with 13, Georgia and Louisiana with 12 each, South Carolina 11, New Jersey 8, Mississippi 7, and Virginia and Alabama with 6 each.

The states of Arkansas, New York, and Maryland all tied Illinois with 5 each. Several states had four draftees each, and they included Iowa, Wisconsin (all 7th round), North Carolina, Washington, Nevada, Michigan (a down year for them), Indiana, and Utah. And on down it goes. Interestingly, since Illinois places such an emphasis on recruiting Missouri in addition to its home state, the state of Missouri had only one draftee. And that was the Illini's own Christian Morton from St. Louis River Gardens in the seventh round.

In an effort to study the quality of high school football players produced within the state of Illinois, I have done an analysis of players who graduated high school in 1999 and 2000 since these are the ones who were eligible for this year's NFL draft. The latter year is for those who played all four of their college years without a redshirt year. I did this by studying "Tom Lemming's Prep Football Report" for the summers prior to their senior seasons for both years.

Tom Lemming is considered one of the top prep evaluators in the country. He has his detractors, but he has always rated Illinois players highly because he lives in the state and wants to see Illinois players get college scholarships. So at the least, Illinois players will not be undervalued by Lemming even if some might be overvalued. Lemming usually provides three yearly reports, and I am using the summer reports because they list the most names.

It must be understood that some players were excluded from this study because they "exploded" during their senior seasons after flying under Lemming's radar prior to their senior seasons. In fact, three of Illinois' draftees this year, Rich Gardner, Glenn Earl and Michael Turner, were not even mentioned by Lemming. And the Illini's Morris Virgil from Urbana is a player who ended up being highly rated after having no rating prior to his senior season. But by studing one time period consistently, one can at least evaluate comparisons. It is the purpose of this article to evaluate the state of Illinois' relative value in producing top football players, and not to evaluate individual players.

In the summer of 1998, in his report on upcoming seniors who would graduate in 1999, Lemming used two stars as his highest rating. The state of Illinois had no two-star players at the positions of quarterback, tight end, or defensive line. At quarterback, Jon Beutjer was mentioned, but he had no stars by his name. Those receiving one star and rated better than Beutjer, were Jonathan Drach of St. Charles, Russell Michna of Hoffman Estates Conant, Talmadge Hill of Oak Park-River Forest, and Scott Brown of Streamwood. If any of these quarterbacks played well at a major college, I am not familiar with it.

The only two-star running back was Jael Speights of Zion-Benton, and he did not make it at the college level. Chris Brown of Naperville North was given one star, and he proved to be an exceptional back at Colorado who entered last year's draft. But I am not familiar with the college exploits of any of the other one-star running backs: Brian Corcoran, Kevin Hatch, Ted Bolden, Sal Dimucci, Brandon Latta, and Kevin Jordan. Did any of these backs succeed at the college level? If so, I apologize for not recognizing their accomplishments. And the same goes for any others I miss below.

Yaqcov Yisrael of Palatine, later a starting defensive back at Penn State when healthy, and Jon Schweighert of Wheaton Warrenville South and Northwestern, were both given two stars at wide receiver. Both were competent college players, but neither became a superstar. Rantoul's Dwayne Smith was also given two stars, and he had an enigmatic career at Illinois and later at Illinois State. Again, the one star players are unknown to me: Octavius Bond, Matt Cherry, Chuck Cargle, Dontrell Jackson, and Brandon Johnson. Would the U of I have been improved by recruiting any of these athletes?

There is usually a paucity of quality tight ends in Illinois, and Lemming's report demonstrated this for the summer of 1998. The only player given even one star was Mitch Novak of Glenbard West. Does anyone know where he played his college ball?

As usual, the state of Illinois had its highest rated players at offensive line. Tony Pape, the three-year starter at Michigan, the Illini's Sean Bubin and Aaron Hodges, and Sam Aiello, the one who had the run-in with Jon Beutjer at Iowa, were all granted two stars. Based on their college performances, all but Hodges had some success. But the one star players were probably not of the caliber Illinois needs to compete in the Big 10. One of those was Chris Rucks, who started at Illinois but transferred.

Also as usual, there were few quality defensive linemen. No one was good enough to receive two stars. And the one star players, Gabe Nyenhuis, Ben Kennedy, Michael Johnson, Brandon Moton, and Damien McCottrell, did not play at a high major level in college, at least to my recollection. Nyenhuis was highly recruited, but he transferred from Northwestern shortly after arrival.

Kankakee Bishop McNamara's Tim Olmstead was our only two-star linebacker. Pat Durr and Darrell Campbell were one star players who played major college ball after receiving one star ratings. Phil Macklin of Proviso East was also mentioned, although he received no stars, prior to excelling his senior season. He might have been the best of the bunch. But grades and other problems prevented him from realizing his potential after committing to the Illini.

Richard McNutt of Rich East and Jarrett Payton of St. Viator both were listed at defensive back and were given two stars. Both experienced some success in college, although Payton was mostly a reserve running back at Miami. Beyond those two, Duane Stone of Evanston was given one star by Lemming, but no other players received even that much respect. Nick Setta was a highly rated kicker from Lockport. He received two stars and did well at Notre Dame.

Altogether, according to Lemming, the state of Illinois produced 12 two-star players for the 1998-1999 school year. Of those, only 7-8 of them were able to continue their success level in college. In comparison, the state of California that same year had 38 two-star players listed, while Texas had 42, Florida 30, Louisiana 19, Virginia 19, Ohio 18, Pennsylvania 15, and New Jersey 12. Even Mississippi and Maryland had 11 each. As you can see, these numbers are fairly similar to the draft results above.

I am sure a few of the players in these other states failed to reach their potential in college, and I am sure Lemming missed on the evaluations of a number of others. But these comparisons do not convince me that Illinois produces quality football players in enough quantity to aid the University of Illinois in its drive to compete for Big 10 and National Championships.

So what about the next year? Lemming went to a system of four stars for the summer of 1999, and he claimed that the state of Illinois had six players deserving of a four-star rating. But there were no four-star players at quarterback, offensive line, defensive back and kicker. Even some of the four-star players were suspect at best and might have been included because of Lemming's bias.

Lemming gave four Illinois quarterbacks a three-star rating. Matt Lottich of New Trier had a fine career as a guard on Stanford's basketball team, but Matt Schabert, Joe Riner and Haven Mosely did not excel at a high major level. There were five other quarterbacks who were given one or two stars, but none of them would have made winners of the Illini.

The one four-star running back listed was Kenny Rogers of Jacksonville. And as most of you know, Rogers was a recruiting mistake by Illinois and returned home after about three days of fall practice, never to be heard from again. Tori Stuckey of Blue Island Eisenhower and Dan Pohlman of Barrington both have played well for Northwestern after receiving three stars, although Pohlman was shifted to linebacker. Neither is a dominant player, although they might have helped us.

Travann Hayes of Elgin Larkin was the only four-star wide receiver, and like Rogers he did not make it at the college level. The Illini's Ade Adeyemo was a three-star player, and he may finally get a starting spot in his fifth and final year. None of the other receivers listed are known to have excelled in college.

Jerome Collins of Wheaton Warrenville South was listed with four stars at tight end. Jerome committed to Notre Dame, but I am not familiar with his college accomplishments. There were no three-star players. The Illini's Anthony McClellan was given two stars, and he may not be a starter his senior season.

Unlike the previous season and most others since then, no offensive linemen were singled out for the top rating for the summer of 1999. Bucky Babcock was given three stars and has been a three year starter for the Illini. Matt Ulrich of Streamwood has played major college ball and was three stars, and two-star Dave Hilderbrand played some as a reserve for the Illini, but I don't recognize any of the other names. The 1999-2000 high school year was a down year for offensive linemen.

Steve Williams of Bolingbrook was given four stars as a defensive lineman, and he played well at Indiana when eligible. He was one of the few defensive linemen in my memory who was really outstanding in Illinois during his high school years. Clark Collins, who played some offensive line at Illinois before quitting, had three stars as a defensive lineman. Derrick Strong from Chicago Mt. Carmel was given two stars, and he was the Illini's best defensive end last season. Mark Maloney, who may start as a defensive tackle during his fifth season at Illinois, was given two stars as well. I don't recognize the other names rated by Lemming.

Linebacker was best represented in the Lemming report. Mike Goolsby of Joliet Catholic became a starter at Notre Dame, and Karlton Neal of Chicago Morgan Park became a starter at Tennessee, and both received four stars. But the rest of the contingent of honored linebackers had variable success rates after high school. Familiar names for Illini fans include Jemari Perry, who had to quit for medical reasons, with three stars, Joe Bevis with two stars, and Brad Haywood, the blocking fullback, with one star.

There were no four-star defensive backs for the 1999-2000 season. Kareem Timbers of Chicago Mt. Carmel went to Wisconsin and had three stars. Interestingly, another player who received three stars was Chris Jack of Chicago Gordon Tech. Chris later walked on at Illinois and was helpful on special teams. Kevin Anderson of East St. Louis came to Illinois but left after he received no playing time. Chuckie Cowans of Oak Lawn Richards is another name people might recognize, and he has played some as a reserve at Wisconsin. Both Anderson and Cowans were given two stars.

So of the six four-star players in Lemming's 1999-2000 evaluations, only three were truly four-star players. And of the 24 three-star players, no more than seven or so have become competent college players, if memory serves. By comparison, the state of Florida had 15 four-star players and 37 three-star players the same year. But instead of names like Kenny Rogers and Travann Hayes, they had Willis McGahee, Mike Jenkins and Vince Wilfork, all first-round NFL draft picks among numerous others. Frankly, had it not been for Tom Lemming's kindness and loyalty to Illinois players, there would be little comparison possible.

So what does all of this mean? For one thing, the high school seniors in the years 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 have just completed their college eligibility or will do so this year. At Illinois, they are the upperclassmen of a team that had a 1-11 record for the 2003 season and are rated lowly for the upcoming season. Even if Illinois had recruited most of the top players in Lemming's ratings, we would still have had major holes to fill on our team. For example, the lack of any outstanding quarterbacks in those two years speaks volumes relative to Illinois' need for quarterback leadership within a West Coast offense.

The Illini faced a double whammy in the recruiting wars of 1998-2000. They had the dour records of 2-9 during Lou Tepper's last season in 1996, 0-11 in Ron Turner's first year of 1997 and 3-8 in 1998. Three consecutive poor records damages recruiting efforts severely since most athletes prefer to attend schools where success is guaranteed. At the same time, the quantity of excellent recruitable players in Illinois was extremely low. In fact, based on the absense of any Illinois athletes in the first two rounds of this year's draft, it is safe to say there was a total void of superstars. This is a devastating combination of circumstances.

Every Illini football coach since Mike White has promised to recruit Illinois first. After all, a number of prominent high school coaches had sought vengence against Illinois since White had favored the recruitment of junior college players over high school players. They cared more for their own athletes than seeing Illinois succeed, and they made high school recruiting difficult for us as punishment. So John Mackovic, Lou Tepper and Ron Turner all made a concerted effort to contact every school in Illinois and show an interest in them and their players.

But when you do this, there is less time, money and energy for recruiting your needs from other states. If you choose to recruit Illinois players first, and you cannot find enough players to meet your needs within the state, then you can count on having poor records four and five years later. That is no small part of what has happened at Illinois recently.

Actually, Ron Turner recruited a few Illinois players who did well at Illinois after receiving no mention in Tom Lemming's reports. So it is good that the coaching staff is not limited to trusting the evaluations of the "recruiting gurus". Jeff Ruffin and Jerry Schumacher both played a great deal for Illinois, and Mike O'Brien is seen as a potential star as a 6-year player this fall. But the Illini also recruited players who did not excel and were not listed by Lemming, such as Kenny Boyle, Jim Ferguson, Nana Agyeman, Lamont Holden, and Lee Sicinski. Eric McGoey and Dustin Ward were also excluded by Lemming even though they lettered at Illinois. They were not difference-makers either.

I am not trying to defend Ron Turner's recruiting efforts because I believe he did not fill his original assistant coaching staff with enough aggressive recruiters. But he and his staff were at a major disadvantage by having the state of Illinois short of talent the years he most needed to rebuild a program minimalized by Lou Tepper's narrow focus. It is never easy to recruit players willing to rebuild a program. It is much worse when your only choice is to go out of state where there is no previous loyalty to the school or memory of past success.

The main focus of this column is to examine high school football talent in Illinois and not Ron Turner's recruiting. Considering how few Illinois products have been drafted into the NFL recently, I would conclude that the state of Illinois is not the hotbed some believe it to be.

You are welcome to draw your own conclusions as to what the above statistics mean. But if you look at the profiles of the athletes taken in the first few rounds of the draft and then compare them with the athletes typically found in the state of Illinois, I think you will find a major difference.

As one of numerous examples, the Chicago Bears' first two draft choices this year were both defensive tackles. Tommy Harris of Oklahoma weighs 290 pounds, bench presses 470 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds. Terry (Tank) Johnson weighs 283, benches 400 and runs the 40 in 4.83 seconds (ESPN reported that Johnson weighs 304 and runs a 4.74). How often has the state of Illinois ever produced a defensive tackle with the size, speed, strength and athleticism of either of these two athletes, and who was also later draftable? The simple and accurate answer is a resounding NEVER.

Sure, an occasional exceptional athlete like defensive end Simeon Rice or receiver Tai Streets comes along, but they are in tiny numbers by comparison with what is happening in other parts of the country. And since the NFL seems to love the athletes produced in the Southeast, Southwest and California, that is where the recruiting must be done to compete on even terms with the elite teams. Of course, that is what all other major college football teams have long known as well.

Are the last couple of years just a temporary low cycle or a consistent trend? Only time will tell. But from nonscientific observations of over forty years, I would conclude that any future Illinois coach should plan to seek top talent wherever he can find it and not stay primarily in the state of Illinois. At least, he should do this if he wishes to remain competitive in the Big 10 on a consistent basis.

Go Illini!

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