How Illinois Filled Football Recruiting Needs

Head coach Ron Zook continues to do a masterful job of recruiting top athletes for his Fighting Illini football team. A significant number of players from the 20 man class announced last week will see playing time this fall. But there were some losses as well. Part of recruiting is how well each class fills needs on the present roster.

Illinois was somewhat limited in recruiting numbers this year due to a lack of available scholarships. So their national ranking will not reflect the quality of the class when compared with schools having larger class sizes.

However, some needs were not filled with this class. For instance, there is no dominant left tackle in the group. They had a line on several great ones, but they all went elsewhere. Pennsylvanian Eric Shrive was one, Marcus Hall of Cleveland Glenville was another.

In-state prospects Mike Schofield and Pat Ward chose Michigan and Northwestern respectively. Iowan Dave Barrent signed on with Michigan State. Left tackle is one of the most highly sought positions on the football field, but Illinois missed out on everyone they sought.

We don't know whether Illini coaches wanted all these linemen or whether they ever really had a chance to land them. But fans became somewhat manic-depressive after getting hopeful and then getting their hopes dashed as each potential star seemed a possibility and then chose another school.

Illinois also needed a middle linebacker, but it is uncertain whether they landed one. Their two new linebackers have talent, but they may not have the savvy and experience in the middle to help right away. Eric Watts is a weakside type, and Aaron Gress may be also. They have speed and aggressiveness, so they will help regardless.

Many Illini fans assumed three or four linebackers would be part of the class due to need, but such was not the case. Academic issues took out a couple possibilities, and Jacksonville, Florida's Sam Barrington produced the biggest signing day shocker by choosing South Florida despite firm offers from Illinois and Miami. Alas, the uncertainties of college recruiting.

It would have been nice to get another safety since Illini varsity safeties struggled this last season. Tommie Hopkins, Joelil Thrash and Walt Aikens are all versatile enough to play either cornerback or safety, and they may be given a chance there early. But another body or two might have helped.

It also would have been nice to land a top punter. Brother Rice's Joe Orseske was extremely impressive in a summer workout at Memorial Stadium, but he will be attending Minnesota since Illinois won't have a punter scholarship available until next year.

The Illini searched for a difference maker running back but missed on several. Bud Golden is a fine prospect, but he lacks superstar status. Illinois went after players like David Oku out of Oklahoma, St. Louisan Ronnie Wingo, Tavon Austin from D. C., and a few Florida supers, but all went elsewhere.

At the last minute, Louisville speedster Justin Green decommitted from Ohio State in favor of the Illini. Green can be a difference maker in a spread offense that uses quick hitters, options, and swing passes to use his speed in the open field. His signing raised the profile of the recruiting class a great deal and was the emotional upliftment needed after several apparent commitments were dropped due to academics.

In a bizarre situation, Chicago defensive end Craig Drummond was forced to enroll at Ole Miss for second semester after failing to be admitted to Illinois. He could have delayed his graduation and taken the needed coursework for admission in the summer, but he was hungry to begin his college career early.

Junior college offensive lineman Jamar Bass committed to the Illini but found himself short a couple courses and is now planning to play at South Florida. He might have been in the mix at left tackle. Cincinnati defensive end Tank Carradine was committed for a couple of months but was also not accepted at Illinois. And St. Augustine, Florida, linebacker commitment Darryl Lee may have to greyshirt as he works out his academic issues.

Super receiver Kraig Appleton out of East St. Louis committed to Illinois but changed his mind in favor of Wisconsin at the last minute. Coach Zook was unwilling to discuss specifics, but the details of this recruiting escapade must be fascinating.

It ended up being a really good year, especially considering the record on the field. This is a credit to Coach Zook and his assistants including the three newest members of the staff. Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and defensive line coach Keith Gilbert were too late to draw players they recruited at their previous schools, but they were important in finalizing the class.

Schultz visited Nathan Scheelhaase, Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and other offensive recruits and helped convince them that Illinois' offense will not skip a beat with him at the helm. Gilbert flew straight from Houston to Tallahassee to keep lineman Andrew Carter in the fold and did a bangup job with the other offensive linemen who had bonded with Wolford.

Gilmore visited with defensive end Michael Buchanan before he even made it to campus to check out his new office. He must have made a good impression, as Buchanan chose to play for him. These three men made an important contribution, preventing further loss of talent.

So from a fan's perspective, Illinois recruiting was a roller coaster ride this year. Those who follow the details, who hang on every storyline and believe every prediction, are probably as worn out right now as the Illini coaches. But in the end, the last minute commitments of Buchanan and Green helped save the day.

This is a good class, and it could become a great class with time as talent emerges on the field. Hopefully, memories of all the emotional highs and lows will fade as the final results are analyzed and accepted.

As for the Illinois coaching staff, they are already well into the 2010 class. They have one commitment in Proviso East super athlete Corey Cooper and are close on several others. And they have a Junior Day coming up at the end of February.

Off we go on another recruiting adventure. What great players will Illinois land this next February? Hang on, it will likely be a bumpy but exhilarating ride.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories