Illinois entered the 2008-2009 recruiting period as a Rose Bowl participant. Hopes were high for a banner recruiting class. However, a number of factors conspired to alter original perceptions. There was sufficient turmoil and confusion to give coaches gray hairs and fans ulcers.
Chicago Leo standouts Lendale Buckner and Leon Hill got the ball rolling with early commitments, as did Ohio star defensive lineman Melvin Fellows. Hopes were high for a top 10 recruiting class.
Fellows later changed his commitment to Ohio State, a result of an aggressive recruiting campaign by the Buckeyes. They resented Illinois pulling top players out of their state, so they began offering scholarship to their prospects much earlier than years past. They applied tons of pressure to Fellows to keep him in state, and it succeeded. OSU's more aggressive recruiting approach reduced Illinois' chances of success in Ohio.
Illinois assistant coach Jim Pry had helped attract three excellent Pennsylvania prospects last year, but a Penn State/Pittsburgh recruiting onslaught neutralized much of his efforts this year. Eric Shrive, a highly rated left tackle and close friend and teammate of Illini tight end Hubie Graham, shocked onlookers by making an early commitment to Penn State. Pry kept the Illini in the game until the end for 4 star receiver Je'Ron Stokes, but he loved Michigan more.
Like Ohio State, Penn State asked for and received commitments much earlier in the process than the recent past. This helped neutralize Illinois assistant Mike Locksley's efforts in the Maryland/Washington D. C. area. The Nittany Lions wrapped up many of the top players in that area before they could even visit the Illini.
In fact, visitation problems were a factor throughout most of 2008. Gasoline prices were skyrocketing at the time, and families couldn't afford to drive their sons long distances to check out prospective colleges.
Coach Ron Zook and his staff must develop relationships with their top recruits early in the process to counter the obvious advantages of programs with long-term success on the field. With text messaging outlawed and visitations on the wane, it became more difficult for Zook and his recruits to learn about one another.
The state of Illinois has not produced quantities of top prospects for several years now, so Illinois must look far and wide for players capable of competing with the top schools.
And it isn't always easy to recruit within Illinois either. The Chicago area usually produces the largest number of players, and they are torn by loyalties to Notre Dame and most of the other Big 10 schools. Chicago is metropolitan and has never had much loyalty to its state school.
In addition, there seems to be a recent trend by Chicago suburban prospects to shun their state school for reasons that are not entirely understood. A few years ago, that area was fertile ground for the Illini, but Chicago proper was not. Now, Illinois is having success recruiting Chicago city kids, and the suburban ones have minimal interest. They landed Buckner and Hill, but they didn't attract linemen Chris Watt, Michael Schofield or Pat Ward.
Coaching turnover had an effect also. Locksley is usually a recruiting star, but only defensive back Joelil Thrash, Florida tight end Justin Lattimore and fullback Greg Fuller signed among those he was recruiting for the Illini. Defensive end Michael Buchanan was Locksley's also, but Michael appeared leaning to Vanderbilt or Purdue at the time Locksley left.
Locksley was the lead recruiter for top prospects like linebacker Jelani Jenkins out of Maryland and Florida tight end Orson Charles. But whatever minimal chance Illinois had with these supers vanished when he became New Mexico's head coach. Locksley could have signed several D. C. players if there was room and they were eligible. But he attracted no superstars.
Offensive line coach Eric Wolford was doing well in the state of Ohio and had helped open a door to prospect factory Cleveland Glenville. He was at least partially responsible for all four of the offensive linemen who signed with the Illini, and he discovered defensive lineman Tim Kynard in Toledo. But a couple top Ohio players ceased showing interest when he departed for South Carolina.
Illinois' frustrating 2008 season didn't help the cause either. They may not have lost anyone already committed or leaning to the Illini, but rival recruiters used the team's record as a reason to discount Illinois' future potential.
In fact, negative recruiting was abundant all year. Lines like, 'they prefer to play Illinois players," or 'they prefer to play the brothers,' or 'that coach prefers to play his own recruits,' or 'they were just lucky one year and are now falling back,' or 'Zook can recruit but he can't coach,' all had their effect.
Despite all these problems, Illinois still brought in an outstanding recruiting class. There is a good mix of potential stars and quality team players. They landed an outstanding quarterback, a super receiver, two excellent running backs, quality offensive and defensive linemen, and some aggressive defenders. A couple sleepers could end up being three year regulars. Given the circumstances, it was probably as good as can be expected.
Assistant coach Reggie Mitchell deserves special praise for the number of excellent prospects he helped sign for the Illini. He was the primary recruiter for the Chicago and East St. Louis kids. And he was heavily involved with Kansas City quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and junior college linebacker Aaron Gress while serving as substitute for the coaches who departed.
And co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch did his usual good work in Florida by attracting Jacksonville linebacker Eric Watts and defensive tackle Akeem Spence plus Tallahassee offensive lineman Andrew Carter. These three athletes will undoubtedly help in the future, with Watts getting a chance to help immediately on special teams.
Kurt Beathard should also be mentioned. He brought in just two players, but Walt Aikens and Justin Green are highly skilled and come from distant regions that don't usually send players into Big 10 country. Beathard almost landed several more outstanding players, keeping the Illini in the game until the end.
Part 2 will discuss the players who got away and how well Illinois met team needs with their 2009 recruiting class.