Illinois coach Ron Zook has been busy this winter. Besides enduring painful shoulder surgery and traveling across the country to visit recruits, he has also needed to find coaching replacements for offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, offensive line coach Eric Wolford, and defensive line coach Tom Sims.
Mike Schultz is the new offensive coordinator. The TCU play-caller takes over for Locksley and has Illini recruitniks excited about his many Texas recruiting connections. These connections will likely not pay off until next year, but he is busy enough getting acquainted with Illini commitments like quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, receiver Terry Hawthorne plus several uncommitted prospects.
Joe Gilbert takes over the offensive line and comes with glowing credentials for recruiting prowess. He has contacts in Texas, Ohio, Florida and his native New York. And Keith Gilmore is the new defensive line coach. He has experience in Ohio and Michigan as well as other locales.
These three men plus their fellow Illinois assistants will all be on hand to greet a large contingent of prospects this weekend. While last minute changes are always possible, the number of prospects visiting appears to be somewhere in the low 20's.
Some of these prospects are firmly committed to Illinois. Scheelhaase, Lendale Buckner, Leon Hill, Jake Feldmeyer, Greg Fuller, Tank Carradine, Tommie Hopkins, Walt Aikens and Hugh Thornton fall into this category. East St. Louis stars Terry Hawthorne and Kraig Appleton have committed to Illinois but continue to take visits. Hopefully, their weekend visit will remind them of their original reasons for choosing the Illini.
There are some top uncommitted prospects expected as well. Since Illinois is still looking for help at linebacker and the defensive backfield, there will be some candidates for those scholarships on campus. A top running back is always needed, and a couple possibilities should be on hand. There will also be two top-rated receivers checking things out, if everything works out as expected. Plus a sprinkling of linemen.
There are still a number of question marks, brought on primarily by academic concerns. Throughout each year, recruiting gurus and media focus on a player's athletic credentials while disregarding his ability to qualify for a college scholarship. So each year, there are some prospects who suddenly change commitments at the last minute due to these academic problems.
This is apparently true of former Illinois commitment Craig Drummond. The All-Star defensive end wanted to enroll at Illinois midyear. Reports indicate he found out he wouldn't be accepted that early, so he decommitted and is looking around.
The coaching changes at Illinois have also come into play. Cleveland Glenville's talented left tackle Marcus Hall dropped Illinois when Wolford left for South Carolina. Wolford was his recruiting coach and future position coach, and it appears his interest was with Wolford rather than Illinois and Zook. The close friend of Illinois' Cordale Scott would have been a major coup for the Illini, but it is not to be.
Five-star Maryland linebacker Jelani Jenkins also appears to have dropped Illinois from consideration. He was a long-shot at best, but Illinois had put much time and effort into his recruitment.
Zook and assistants Dan Disch and Curt Mallory saw one of Jelani's games, but lead recruiter Locksley was his main connection to Illinois. That dematerialized when Locksley left for New Mexico. One wonders if Washington, D. C. defensive back Joelil Thrash might be having second thoughts for the same reason.
Recruits visiting this weekend will be able to observe the school when all the students are back from vacation and school is in session. And they will be able to attend an Illinois home basketball game against Wisconsin at the Assembly Hall. Seeing the orange-clad throngs cheering loudly for their favorite team always has a positive effect on visiting recruits. They can see the support available for a winning football team.
It is believed this weekend will help solidify the wavering recruits and add some important new talent to the list of athletes planning to sign with Illinois in early February. With most of their future classmates all on campus at the same time, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.