Through the Trifocals

The first day football players can sign scholarship letters is Wednesday, February 2, Groundhog day. Will Ron Zook come out of his recruiting war room and see a bright new future for the Illini, or will the stagnation of previous recruiting cast a shadow over next year's freshman class? Illinisports discusses Zook's recruiting style in this column.

It's a whole new ballgame. Illini fans, be prepared to change the way you think about football recruiting. Long gone are the days when most or all of our available scholarships are committed by Christmas. Long gone also are the days we allow elite recruits to sign with our competitors without a fight or comparable alternative.

The whole mentality of recruiting with new coach Ron Zook and his staff is so different than his predecessors, it is almost the complete reverse. Even in the days of Mike White and Pete Elliott, our best previous football recruiting head coaches, a premium was placed on early commitments, leaving February signing dates with as little suspense as possible. But now, our coaches almost act like they don't want early commitments. At least, they don't accept them as final until the names are on the dotted line.

Ron Zook is ambitious. He wants to compete with the "elite" programs for recruits and victories. He doesn't want to settle for average. And he has learned from his many years working for elite programs that there is tremendous competition for the best players.

To compete with top programs on the field, you must be able to go toe to toe with them in athletes' homes and appeal successfully to players' hearts and minds. And since we are dealing here with 17-18 year old youngsters who may not be capable of making wise adult decisions, there is likely to be much vacillation and uncertainty in their decision-making. Sometimes, it is who talks to them last who gets the prize. Zook plans to talk to them last.

After all, many of the most highly sought high school players are in no hurry to choose a school. They KNOW they will receive a scholarship, so there is no need to make an early commitment. A number of players in Illinois' recent recruiting classes have feared not having a scholarship available for them come signing day, so they have committed early to guarantee that scholarship. In contrast, superstar players can play the waiting game with no need to rush their decision.

There are always some who are holding out for the biggest illegal payouts, and there are definitely schools willing to enter bidding wars for great players. But even those with integrity have great schools recruiting them and have much to weigh before committing four years of their lives to one school. Their decisions should not be rushed, and a delayed decision can help prevent mistakes. It is expensive, time-consuming and nerve-wracking for coaching staffs to wait so long to finalize recruiting classes, but National Championships cannot be won on the field if you accept mediocrity in the recruiting game.

Up to now, Illini fans have been clamoring for better recruiting. We have seen how strong our competitors have become by recruiting the great speed in the Southeast and Southwest. We have come to realize that the state of Illinois is not always a veritable hotbed of talent and that we cannot always win with Illinois or even Midwest talent alone.

We want better recruiting, but do we have the stomach for it? Are we prepared for the tension and frequent disappointment that comes with waiting for the first Wednesday in February to discover who Illinois has recruited for the next season? Are we willing to trust Zook and his staff and not question why some of our favorite players have committed elsewhere, why some may have been given deadlines for their scholarship offers, or why some are not being recruited? Can we hold off opening our Christmas gifts until February in hopes of ending with something better than we thought we wanted?

We will have to get used to it, whether we want to or not. This will be a difficult adjustment for some. After all, many of us root for athletes from the state of Illinois and secretly long for them to attend their state school. We hate having them stolen by competitors. We despise seeing them snub their noses at us, as if they are too special for us. We fear the wrath of Illinois high school coaches should we not recruit their athletes. We want to put a fence around the state and lock up all our best athletes, as if this will solve our need for championships.

Even in this above average year in Illinois high schools, when there are around 7-10 top players, there are not enough to give us championships. In fact, some of those top players may only appear great to us in comparison with their competition. Regardless, even if they are all future 1st round NFL draft choices (which they most definitely are not), and even if they all came to Illinois, we still need 24 starters counting kickers to field a complete team. If we took only Illinois players, we would see a big dropoff of talent level at those positions not manned by the superstars.

We must branch out to other areas, and we must consider alternative methods of recruiting. In the SEC, competition for recruits is ferocious and not always above-board. Schools steal each others' recruits all the time. They use any and all bits of information about their competitors against them. They will stop at nothing to get the best players.

This is the environment from which Ron Zook has matured as a recruiter. Fortunately, he is said to be a high-minded individual who uses enthusiasm, boundless energy, and persistence to secure top recruits rather than illegal inducements. But within the framework of NCAA guidelines and recruiting rules, he will work tirelessly to obtain the players he believes who can most help him. He will not retreat from a fight at the first sign a player is wavering, unlike some of his Illini predecessors.

So how does all this translate for Illini fans? First of all, get used to seeing our big recruiting weekends come in January rather than December, with the biggest weekend coming just prior to signing day. It is that way this year out of necessity since Zook and his staff have had such a late start. But this is their preferred modus operandi.

Second, plan to see many names bandied about throughout the recruiting period (Zook's master recruiting list will begin each year with 1500 or more names, and it must be pared to a maximum of 28 players receiving scholarships). It is wise not to pick favorites or get your hopes up for particular athletes. You may feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster, but it will be nothing compared with our coaches. They will know who they most want, but they will be engaged in a juggling act, trying to determine who they have the best chance to recruit. And they will keep numerous second-line players on their contact list, realizing they may need some of these players when their top players choose other schools.

They will always be looking for alternatives. They will be beating the bushes because some areas of the country, like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas, have tons of talented players who may be overlooked by others. There are more players who run legitimate 4.5 forty-yard dash times in any of these states each year than Illinois may have in 5-10 years. According to the Orlando Sentinel, there were 224 Florida high school track athletes who broke 11 seconds for the 100-meter dash in 2004. There were 319 Division I-A signings for the Class of 2004 from Florida, with 181 signings going to Bowl Championship Series schools. This is far more than Illinois ever produces.

Schools who change coaches are vulnerable to losing their early commitments, and the sharks at other schools will be contacting those athletes. Zook and his staff will likely be among the sharks. Players injured during part or all of their senior seasons may go under the radar but may offer as much or more potential as the All-Stars. Transfers, junior college and prep school athletes will also need evaluation. And some athletes may show big improvement in their academic standing, making them available for recruitment only upon completion of the first semester of their senior seasons.

For all these reasons and more, Coach Zook will keep his master plan secret to the general public. He doesn't want anyone to know exactly how many scholarships he has available so it can't be used against him by aggressive competitors. He will allow superstars to make public commitments early, but he may hold off trying to close on other athletes until he has a better understanding of what is possible.

The last thing Zook needs is a bunch of Illini fans complaining because he has not called a favored recruit recently or appears to be wavering in his interest in that player. This is a dog-eat-dog business, and personal feelings must be put aside to do the best job. After all, our top opponents will have no moral compunction to feel emotionally attached to an average recruit if a great recruit can be substituted.

Ron Zook must compete with this mentality, so it is likely he must behave in a similar way, fighting fire with fire. That is why you may see a previous Illini commitment suddenly expressing an interest in visiting another school. Or, you might see Zook showing interest in a player at a position already apparently filled to the brim with players. Or, you might see him withdraw a scholarship offer from a non-signed player to use for a last-minute commitment from a great alternative.

This is normal at the highest level of college football recruiting. Our coaches are willing and able to recruit top players this way, so fans need to understand the benefits and not be concerned about the differences from previous coaching staffs. Some players are hurt by the games schools play with them, but some schools are equally hurt by the games players and their families play toward the schools. It is a tough business.

We have tried in the past to play the recruiting game soft, and it hasn't worked. We have recruited some fine young men, but they were not always at the same level athletically as our more ambitious competitors. Our present staff has had success at the highest recruiting level, so we either have to accept their methods or go back to the mediocrity we have been experiencing. They will be legal, but competitive.

Yes, there will be some hurt feelings. Some Illinois high school coaches will be mad that Illinois didn't recruit their mediocre players while sending their great ones elsewhere. They will promise vengence, but we mustn't worry about it too much. If they have great players, Zook and his staff will work their butts off to recruit them. We will know they did their best. And if they don't have great players, we must look for great ones elsewhere rather than accepting average players just to please them.

Of course, Illinois recruiting this year may not reflect accurately Zook's overall plan or abilities. It takes a year or more to develop relationships with athletes and get them to see you in a favorable light. And Illinois' new coaches need to demonstrate an improved product on the field so players can compare us favorably with other top schools.

Of the top seven players in Illinois this year, only All-American running back Rashard Mendenhall will attend the U of I. Tom Lemming, a self-proclaimed guru of high school football recruiting, says Illinois will likely end up either 10th or 11th in the Big 10 for recruiting classes this year. This may be true, especially because productive recruiting was practically nonexistent during the last months of the Ron Turner regime. But don't give up on Ron Zook yet for he may yet surprise some people.

Zook has the decided advantage of having an excellent reputation in the states of Florida and Georgia, and many players are eager to talk to him about Illinois. Among his new assistants are Reggie Mitchell and Mike Locksley, the recruiting coordinators for Michigan State and Florida respectively, who are popular with a number of recruits in several hotbed areas.

Perhaps not the All-Americans, but a number players with athletic ability equal to or better than most Illinoisans have made plans to visit Illinois in the next weeks prior to signing date. Zook may not be able to fill every need on short notice, but he is likely to improve our team at several of the skill positions. At the least, we will likely be considerably faster than the recent past.

And next year, recruiting could really heat up. Don't be surprised if Illinois is mentioned as a viable school possibility for a large number of outstanding players all over the Midwest, East and Southeast. And depending on who he hires for the three assistant coaching positions not known at this writing, the number of players and areas might grow further.

But one thing is certain. Ron Zook is dogged in his determination to recruit great players, and he has the persistence to fight it out with all comers to the last possible moment. He won't get them all, but he will likely get his fair share. And that will be a big improvement for Illinois. Zook may look out on Groundhog Day and then decide to crawl back into his recruiting burrow, but that is because recruiting is a 12-month-a-year job. It will not be because he feared the bright light that is Illinois' football future.

The recruiting game is an endurance race rather than a sprint. The ride will be bumpy and long, but we now have a horse in the race with both speed and endurance, one with a history of success over all turfs. That in itself is a victory for us, one of possibly many more to come.

Go Illini!!! Illinisports

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