Through the Trifocals

This is my second annual "State of the State" column regarding the quality of football players turned out by the state of Illinois. The recent NFL draft allows me to evaluate the number of Illinois players drafted and compare those with other states. I have utilized the NFL's website to compare the home towns listed for each of the 255 drafted players.

In terms of the total number of players drafted, this was a better year than the last two for the state. Illinois had nine players drafted this year, compared with 5 last year and 6 the year before. As such, the state was seventh highest among all states. California led with 36 total draftees, while Florida had 28, Texas had 26, Georgia and Michigan 13, and Alabama 12. Following Illinois were Ohio and Louisiana with 8 each, Virginia and South Carolina with 7 each, Oklahoma and North Carolina with 6 each, and Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Colorado with 5 each.

A ranking of seventh is good, and most would believe it indicates that Illinois is a top state for finding football talent. However, a closer examination of the draft this year confuses the issue somewhat. After all, California had four times as many draftees as Illinois, and 9 out of 255 is only 3.5% of the total. For that matter, when you combine all the states with Big 10 universities, there were 44 total draftees, which is only 17% of the total.

In addition, Illinois had no first round draft choices. Among those who did, California and Georgia led the nation with five each. This is an amazingly strong number for Georgia especially. Texas, Florida and South Carolina all had three first round draftees. Mississippi and Alabama had 2 each, and eight other schools had one each. But none were from Illinois.

Players in the first three rounds of the draft each year are considered most likely to stick with their teams, and Illinois did not fare well when all draftees from the first three rounds are compared. In the first three rounds, the state of Illinois had only two draftees, second rounders Kelvin Hayden of Illini fame and Iowa's Matt Roth.

By comparison, California had 14 players drafted in the first three rounds, Florida and Texas had 12 each, and Georgia had 11. These four states are clearly the runaway leaders for draftees this year (and most years), and there is a big dropoff afterward. Ohio and Alabama had four draftees each; Colorado, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi had three each; and Illinois tied Michigan, Maryland, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Kentucky, New York, Canada, Indiana, and Missouri with two each.

Besides the two second round draftees Roth and Hayden, the other draftees with Illinois backgrounds are Iowa safety Sean Considine, fourth round; linebacker James "Boomer" Grigsby of Illinois State, tight end Jerome Collins of Notre Dame and Cincinnati linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, fifth round; and Ball State receiver Dante Ridgeway, Wisconsin defensive tackle Jason Jefferson and Ball State punter Reggie Hodges, sixth round.

Missouri running back Damien Nash was drafted in the fifth round, and he did play his senior year of high school at East St. Louis, Illinois. However, he only moved to Illinois temporarily to follow his coach and listed St. Louis as his hometown with the NFL. Thus, he is not included in Illinois' total.

Hayden was a highly rated defensive back at Chicago Hubbard, and Notre Dame's Collins was a hot tight end prospect at Wheaton Warrenville South. But all of the other Illinois draftees went under the radar in high school and developed to their full potential only while playing college ball. Most came from smaller schools that are not recruited heavily.

My column last year listed the players rated the highest by recruiting guru Tom Lemming in his summer of 1999 "Prep Football Report". Of that group, Collins was the only player in the highest grouping to be drafted, either last year or this. Kankakee Bishop McNamara's Hagler, not recruited heavily by Illinois due to academic concerns, was the only player in the next highest grouping to make it to the NFL on draft day. Jefferson received no special rating at all, but the Chicago Leo product did get mention under the separate heading "Other Illinois stars".

Considine was a star running back at Byron, Illinois, before walking on at Iowa without a scholarship. After redshirting his first year, Considine became a standout safety for the Hawkeyes. Grigsby is a hometown hero in Canton. Unheralded and unrecruited, he became an Illinois State superstar after redshirting his first year. And Hodges was a star punter at Champaign Centennial who had an outstanding career at Ball State. Illinois was not in the market for a punter five years ago, for those who wonder. None of these fifth-year players received any mention by Tom Lemming.

Among the Illinois players who were drafted this year after completing their high school football careers in 2001, the Illini's Hayden had the highest rating in Lemming's publication with four stars as a defensive back (five stars was the best). Roth was given only three stars as he wanted to be considered a linebacker at the time, but he developed into an aggressive and dominant defensive end for the Hawkeyes.

Ridgeway was given no mention by Lemming after having a good career at Decatur MacArthur. In fact, he was considered somewhat small for the position at the time, if memory serves. Since he is now 5-11 and over 200 pounds, Dante has developed nicely since.

For those who follow Illini recruiting, a look at Lemming's top players for the 2000-2001 high school season is revealing. Lemming gave only one Illinois player five stars, his top rating. That was Brett Bell, a defensive back from Wheaton Warrenville South. After injuries and redshirting early in his career at Wisconsin, Bell has a decent chance of being drafted next year.

Hayden was joined in the group of four-star players by some names Illini fans will recognize. These include Abe Jones, Rob Needham, Lionel Williams, and Chuckie Moore. Jones is now a star 400 meter hurdler on the Illini track team. He quit football after Illini coaches wanted to move him from halfback to defensive back. Needham lost interest in football a year after Illinois signed him to play offensive tackle. Neither the defensive lineman Williams nor the safety Moore qualified academically for Illinois. The Illini received early commitments from them, perhaps hoping their star quality would attract other top players, but that didn't happen. Williams attended Southern Illinois, and it is not known what happened to Moore.

Other four-star players, according to Lemming, were quarterbacks Owen Daniel (now a tight end at Wisconsin), Brett Basanez (Northwestern), and Casey Paus (Washington), receivers Kevin Noel (Purdue), Devon Clark (Iowa, left team) and Rod Middleton, tight end Kyle Ealey (Michigan, left team), linemen Dan Stevenson (Notre Dame) and O. J. Oshinowo (Stanford), and linebackers Pat McShane and Corey Mayes (Notre Dame). Several of these players were highly recruited and attended big programs, but these players have had mixed results at their respective schools. 2000-2001 was considered a great year in Illinois for prospects, but it remains to be seen how many, if any, will be drafted next year. At least, none of them were either ready or able to be drafted this year, their fourth year of college.

Notable players listed by Lemming with three stars included wide receiver Kendrick Jones, presently the top Illini receiver from East St. Louis, and Missouri linebackers Matt Sinclair and T. W. Norman, both Illini recruits. Sinclair is getting a free agent opportunity with the Baltimore Ravens after a mixed career at Illinois, and Norman had to give up football entirely after multiple foot problems. Bolingbrook defensive back Cedrick Davenport came to Illinois after receiving three stars, but injuries ended his career prematurely.

Thornton's James Cooper and New Trier's Jordan Kruger both received two stars at running back and offensive line, respectively. Cooper is now a fifth-year senior at Illinois, and Kruger became a transfer walkon for the Illini who is now out of football. Two-star linebacker Jim Goranson of Elk Grove first attended Illinois before transferring to Georgetown. Former Illini defensive lineman Brian Schaefering was given one star as a Missouri linebacker.

Lemming listed 75 additional Illinois high school players, and they all had at least two stars. But I am not familiar with what happened to more than a couple of them. Perhaps one or two will pop up in next year's NFL draft, but probably not.

It must also be remembered that Lemming is from the state of Illinois and is quite eager to help Illinois athletes get good scholarship offers. He always appears to give Illinois players much higher rankings than he would if they were in more distant locales. There is no question many of these players would fare poorly in head-to-head competition with two and three-star players from states like Florida, California and Texas.

Former Illini football coach John Mackovic said that recruiting efforts must be subdivided into two-year segments because it is usually impossible to fill all your recruiting needs in one year. If we look at the last two years of the NFL draft, Illinois high school players drafted included four defensive backs, two offensive linemen, two linebackers, one running back, one wide receiver, one tight end, one defensive tackle, one defensive end and one punter.

There were zero quarterbacks, which might help explain the Illini's quarterback woes in recent times. And there was a shortage at the skill positions in general as well as the defensive and offensive lines. Certainly, there was not the balance needed for Illinois to fill its two-year recruiting needs. Defensive backs were more plentiful than usual, but there is no reason to expect that to be a long-term trend. The state of Illinois has never been known to produce many speedy cover-corners.

If I can be permitted to draw conclusions from this study, it is that Illinois football coaches should not limit their recruiting to Illinois and the Midwest. It can serve as a good base, but dependence on Midwest recruiting has been a downfall for several previous Illini staffs.

Without question, top players are being produced in large quantities in the Southeast, South, Southwest and California. That is why I am excited about Coach Zook and his assistants. They have good contacts in the areas with the most talent, and they plan on using them. We must, without question, supplement local recruiting with a national approach.

If any Illinois high school coaches complain that we are not offering more home grown players scholarships, we should not respond by backing off our national approach. Indeed, we should remind them that we will gladly recruit their players if they are talented enough and trained well enough to compete with top players around the country. After all, we want to win at the highest level, and we can't do that by placing arbitrary limits on our approach.

Illinois high school coaches will rally around the U of I if we are winning, and they will be especially proud if any of their players actually attend and contribute to our success. Their complaints will diminish with time, provided we play well and win.

So, Coach Zook, recruit the heck out of every top player you can find, regardless of location. And hit as many of the top states for football as you possibly can. Four or five years from now, I would love to be writing this column about how many Illini players are drafted and how many more are on their way to stardom and future NFL contracts.

Go Illini!!!


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