The Class of 2006: Part I

Coach Ron Zook and his dynamic staff of coaches/recruiters have assembled an exciting recruiting class of 28 players. In this two-part article, Illinisports discusses the merits of this class and how it might fit into plans for the upcoming football season.

Ron Zook completed his first full year of recruiting for the Illini football team on Wednesday, and the results are impressive. Despite a 2-9 record on the field last fall and many obstacles to overcome, Zook and his talented staff have attracted a quality of athlete that will make Illinois competitive in the Big 10 and nationally.

No, Illinois did not outrecruit Penn State, Michigan or Ohio State within the Big 10, nor were they comparable with other winning programs like USC, Texas, Notre Dame, and LSU nationally. But Zook showed that he can recruit dynamic athletes and will not back down to any competition. He also showed he will travel anywhere to find top players and will explore all potential avenues including prep schools, military schools and junior colleges in addition to the prep ranks.

For those interested in rankings, several recruiting services list Illinois' class in the top 25-30 in the country. Penn State backed up its great 2005 season with a monster recruiting class, and the University of Southern California selected rather than recruited numerous superstars. After all, it is a big country and there are many great players each year. But those familiar with Illinois' recruiting history claim this may be as good a class as any since the Mike White years. Talk is cheap and must be proven on the field, but this Illini class has excellent potential.

Comparisons between Coack Zook's recruiting and previous regimes reveal many differences. Zook knows how to recruit top athletes away from major programs all over the country, and he is willing to put in the time and effort to achieve his goals despite the odds. He is not willing to settle for second line players in order to fill his scholarship quotas, and he is unwilling to complete his recruiting by Christmas as was common in the past. He is willing to turn down athletes who want Illinois if they do not measure up to his standards of achievement on the football field or in their schools and communities. And he is willing to wait until signing day before giving up on landing the best players. These attitudes are almost polar opposites from previous coaching staffs.

The Illini were able to attract top athletes from a number of big-time high schools around the country, ones that all the college super powers check on every year. Few if any previous Illini football players have hailed from such powerhouses as Massillon, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio (Brookhaven); Canton, Ohio (McKinley); Washington, D. C. (H. D. Woodson); Washington, D. C. (Woodson); Greenbelt, Maryland (Eleanor Roosevelt); Lakeland, Florida (Lake Gibson); St. Louis, Missouri (Cardinal Ritter); St. Louis, Missouri (Vashon); Harvey, Illinois (Thornton); and Chicago, Illinois (Morgan Park). And among the bigtime high schools that Illinois tried to recruit and may do so successfully sometime in the future includes Dallas, Texas (Carter); Bayonne, New Jersey; and Atlanta, Georgia (Booker T. Washington). Just walking into these schools was a challenge for a few previous Illini football recruiters, let alone outrecruiting major competitors for top athletes.

Four Illini assistant coaches had the most success in their recruiting areas: Mike Locksley, Reggie Mitchell, Curt Mallory and Ed Warriner. But Dan Disch, Dino Dawson and Tom Sims all did good work that will pay off both this year and next. Quarterback coach Ed Zaunbrecher helped in the recruitment of two quarterbacks with exciting potential. Even Joe Cullen, who served this past fall as a grad assistant coach and may become Illinois' next defensive coordinator had contacts that Illinois utilized successfully this recruiting season. Indeed, it appears Coach Zook has a number of aggressive, hard working assistants who want to win and won't back down to all the recruiting competition.

Almost every position of need was addressed. The Illini varsity demonstrated last fall that it needed improved speed and athleticism, and this recruiting class has that in abundance. Quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, tight end and the entire defense needed upgrading, and this class will go a long way to improve that situation, especially after they have had the time to learn the system and mature in their bodies. Sound, secure tacklers were missing last fall, but this recruiting class has them in abundance. And best of all, most of these athletes are proven winners who will bring an improved attitude to the team. After all, they have not experienced all the trauma of consistent losing that has plagued recent Illini elevens.

One of the most exciting aspects about Coach Zook's recruiting is his ability to sell Illinois and his program to his recruits. Many Illini fans have mourned the lack of enthusiastic salesmanship shown by previous head coaches such as Ron Turner, Lou Tepper, and John Mackovic. Coach Zook brings a thrill to every loyal Illini whenever he speaks about our great school, great facilities, great faculty and administrative leadership, great athletic director and athletic support staff, and great facilities. He is so positive, so believable, and so sincere he can charm athletes and their parents into believing Illinois is the best university in the world. And who knows, after a few good recruiting years, perhaps his words will ring even more true than they do now.

One of the big factors in attracting so many top athletes is Coach Zook's ability to interact personally with his recruits. In fact, Zook spends as much or more time on the road as his assistants and never seems to burn out or lose his enthusiasm. Players get more acquainted with him than many other head coaches, and they like what they see and hear. He is truly a player's coach. He can joke around with them while maintaining the respect necessary to give orders when necessary. All the recruits comment on how much they enjoy knowing Ron Zook.

Another big factor is the enthusiasm of the players already in the program. They had to host the prospective recruits on their official visits. Despite their difficulties on the field, the players were able to project optimism for the future and went a long way toward proving to the recruits that winning is in Illinois' future. Most losing programs have disgruntled athletes who may or may not be willing to help recruit their possible replacements. But in a marvelous sign of things to come, most of the new recruits commented on how much they enjoyed meeting and spending time with the players on campus. Truly, the high quality of individuals on the Illini team served to attract quality recruits.

There may still be one or two scholarships available for fall. Illini coaches will continue to recruit, looking for someone with talent who may have gone overlooked by other schools. Perhaps they will stumble across someone injured his senior year, or perhaps he played on a poor team or out of position. If there is an outstanding athlete out there unsigned, you can rest assured that Zook and Co. will check him out. And if none others are located this year, those scholarships will be available for next year's recruiting class.

Those who signed letters of intent on February 1 must still complete their coursework and confirm their academic eligibility. As is true everywhere every year, there are always a couple who need good academic work in their remaining time in high school to be eligible this fall. But the U of I is willing to admit all of them, believing they have a chance to qualify.

If we lose one or two, don't be surprised to see Coach Zook and staff help direct them to prep schools where they can gain eligibility and be re-recruited next year. And there is a rumor that the Illini may already be looking into prep school possibilities for a couple of top athletes from Florida and Texas. Exploring every possible avenue to get great players, one previous commitment who is not yet eligible to receive a scholarship may be planning to sign nowhere and then enroll at Illinois in January, 2007, after working to gain eligibility. Truly, Coach Zook leaves no stone unturned to help Illinois win.

Look for a description of the recruited players and how they might fit into fall plans in part 2 of this article.

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