Illinois coach Ron Zook has a long and healthy relationship with Rick Houchens, the coach at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. Formerly of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, Houchens sent Derrick Harvey to Zook when he was at Florida and Will Davis and Travon Bellamy to Illinois. He speaks highly of Zook.
"Coach Zook is my main man. He's a great one. Urban Meyer won a National Championship with his guys. Now, he's really done wonders at Illinois. He's gonna win no matter where he goes."
Houchens has another prospect considering the Illini. He compares defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu favorably with Harvey and Davis.
"He is a tremendous young man. I coached Derrick Harvey, who is with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Will Davis, who was drafted by Arizona. Jeremiah is that same prototype player, only I think he has a chance to be better than both those guys. No knock on them by any means, but at the same time I'm thoroughly excited about him.
"He's got this relentless high motor and plays at such a high level all the time. Derrick Harvey was a relentless pass rusher. But that was basically his forte. Jeremiah makes plays all over the field. It's very seldom you get a guy who plays at that level other than an All-Pro guy like Ray Lewis, making plays sideline to sideline.
"Jeremiah is that same type of player. He's got that much passion for the game. He takes it to another level. Coaches are impressed. They can do a lot with him because he plays so well in space.
"He's definitely capable of playing on Sundays."
Attaochu appreciates his coach's evaluation.
"I'm humbled by his compliment. When Coach Rick says something, he means it. I'm not gonna question it, but I'm gonna work harder."
After coaching a perennial powerhouse at Eleanor Roosevelt, Houchens was looking for new worlds to conquer. Archbishop Carroll has the financial support and other private school benefits that Houchens likes, but it hadn't been winning games. Houchens has done wonders with his athletes in a short time through weight training, proper nutritional recommendations, and quality coaching.
"In his junior season, my first year working with him, he was 191 pounds. He never really lifted weights. He's at 224 right now at 6'-3 and 1/2". We hit the weight room extremely hard since last Thanksgiving.
"When the coaches saw the improvements in his body, as well as the pass rush techniques I showed him from some Terrell Suggs drill tape I had and some from Derrick Harvey, he's taken his game to another level. His leverage off the edge is just amazing."
Attaochu describes his game much the same way.
"Mine is a speed game, speed and power. I'm a pass rusher, that's where I do most of my damage. I run some plays down with flat-out hustle. So hustle plays and coming off the edge just as fast as I can."
He has gained weight and strength under Houchen's tutelage, and he is working hard to continue that growth.
"I want to work on my strength. Size wise, I'm getting bigger. I've put on at least 25 pounds in the off season. I know I can get stronger. If I can get as strong as I want to be by the end of my senior year, I can be an impact guy at the next level coming through the doors.
"Pass rushing ability is a commodity, everybody wants it. If I can offer that to the team when I walk through the doors, I think I'll be able to find my place on the team."
Houchens knows Attaochu has plenty of room to grow.
"He has the frame to add weight. A lot of guys in high school don't focus on nutrition. We tried to help him add proper weight because then you can convert that to speed. He's had a healthy weight gain diet with protein shakes and other natural foods to get the calories he needs. Most of these kids don't eat. They get up and just go.
"Jeremiah's shoulders are a little wider than what Derrick's were. And he's cut up. He's like a racehorse. So he has the frame to get much bigger. The other great thing is I still have another offseason with him. So depending on where someone wants to play him, he can be about 245 when he leaves here. When Will Davis left me for Illinois, he was about 218."
Attaochu is being recruited as a defensive end by some schools and an outside linebacker by others. He has a bunch of quality offers.
"I've been offered by 17 schools. Two of them are in the Big 10, Minnesota and Illinois. And then Kansas State in the Big 12, Virginia and Maryland in the ACC, plus Syracuse, East Carolina and some other schools. So it's a bunch of really good schools."
He is serious about making a proper college choice, and he is looking for a way to visit some of the top schools on his list this summer.
"I want to make some of these trips because they're pretty important. Illinois is a priority for me right now. I'm trying to see if I can make a trip up there. I'm a little interested in Syracuse because they have my major, they're number one in Mass Com/Journalism. But I really want to visit Illinois. We're gonna talk about it Friday with my family and our coach. From there, we'll see where we can go."
Attaochu is in no hurry to make a commitment. He wants to weigh his alternatives carefully.
"I'm probably gonna wait to make a commitment because these visits are kind of crucial. My brother told me something funny. He said if I go to all these schools, I'm gonna like every one of them. So it's not a question of which one I like, it's which one I like the most."
Attaochu has developed a good relationship with Keith Gilmore, his recruiting coach and position coach at Illinois, and he hopes to travel to Champaign-Urbana soon to meet up with him and Coach Zook. According to Houchens, those relationships may stand the Illini in good stead when it comes to decision time.
"He's a great well-rounded kid with great academics and great family support. He feels pretty good about Illinois and Coach Zook."