Aaron Gress is an impressive young man. Coach Andy Siegal of College Of The Sequoias raves about him as a player and person.
"He's a fine kid. Coming out of high school, he was an undersized kid. He went on a Christian mission to Samoa and spent a year getting bigger and maturing. He came back and was a safety for us as a freshman, worked hard in the weight room and became a great linebacker for us. A great linebacker.
"As good a football player he is, he's an even better person. He was a team captain, leader of our FCA club.
"He was qualified out of high school, and he has his associates degree, so he covered it both ways. He's a great student. He carries over a 3.5 grade point average as a pre-engineering major. When people talk about 'Everybody's All-American,' it sounds like him."
A number of top athletes mature late, so it is hard for them to fit the criteria major colleges look for right out of high school. Players like Aaron benefit from taking the junior college route to gain strength and size. They can then attract major college scholarship offers. He graduated high school at 180 pounds but now is a strapping 6'-2", 228.
"I know he will play linebacker, but I don't know which one," Siegal explains. "He runs a 4.5 flat 40, so he has the speed for safety. He played WILL and SAM for us. He could have played MIKE had we needed him. And he played some safety when we faced 5 wides.
"He was on every special team. He's an all around player. I could have lined him up at tight end or running back. He would have been better than most guys too."
Gress took visits to BYU and Marshall before flying to Illinois this past weekend. He was also recruited by Nevada, Minnesota and Kansas State among others. But he declined additional visits after seeing Illinois. Advice from his coach aided the process.
"I said you want to major in engineering. If you want the best academics, go to MIT. If you want to play football, then you can't beat Illinois."
Of course, Siegal admits to some bias toward Illinois.
"I've got a relationship with (Dan) Disch, Zook, (Curt) Mallory, (Eric) Wolford and (Reggie) Mitchell forever. Daniel Dufrene played for me. I sent Michael Dean and Anthony Thompson there a long time ago when I was a high school coach.
"Mike Cassidy was my best friend, and I have like 12 uncles and cousins who graduated from Illinois. My high school coach Paul Adams (Deerfield) is in the football Hall Of Fame. It's like a habit, you know."
Siegal made sure the Illini coaches knew about Gress.
"I called and called and called. I finally got Disch on the phone. I said 'Trust me. Look at this youtube film. This kid can flat play.' I said Wisconsin was looking at him but was hemming and hawing about whether to bring a linebacker in.
"Boom. Disch stepped up, got ahold of Ron, and everything went a thousand miles an hour from there. As you know, they're full-speed."