Illinois head coach Ron Zook was both pleased and relieved at the conclusion of a long recruiting year.
"We're excited where we are right now. We signed 20 guys, we have three of them here right now. We got a lot of good mortar that's gonna help this football team. We're excited to get them in here and get going.
"We lost a couple guys at the end, which is something that hasn't happened. But it does happen around the country all the time. Unlike last year when everything went exactly as planned, it didn't go exactly as planned. I'm excited about what we got."
Zook faced more negative recruiting than ever before. Articles about the 3-9 season, casting a pall over the entire program, were difficult to overcome.
"There's been a lot of negative recruiting going on, but that's part of it. People don't have to say anything. They just take the articles that are written and show them (to the recruits). You're defending your manhood, you're defending everything about you every time you go out there.
"But when people get on campus and get around our people, the university sells itself. That's the thing you have to continually talk about. My longevity, all those things were addressed. The guys we got here want to be here. We got them from all over. We covered a lot of ground."
Illinois gained two and lost two on signing day. Receiver Darius Millines signed with Illinois over West Virginia and Marshall, and linebacker/receiver Brandon Denmark added his signature after choosing the Illini over Arkansas.
The two Floridians help make up for the loss of offensive tackle Dan Foose, who switched from the Illini to Florida State, and Proviso East safety Corey Cooper, the Illini's first 2010 commitment who picked Nebraska over the home state school.
Zook commented about Millines.
"Darius is an unbelieveable athlete, he can run like a deer. He probably surprised a lot of people down there because he committed early to West Virginia. Doc Holliday really had a great relationship with him, and he's at Marshall now. I think he has a chance to be a special guy. Jarred Fayson said, 'Coach, he's one of us.' That makes me feel good. It means he's gonna fit in. Jarred hosted him, and he's excited about him."
Zook offered similar praise for Denmark.
"He's an athletic guy that can play a lot of different positions. We have a hybrid position on our new defense, and I think this guy has a chance to be a special player. He can run, he's got long arms, he's got all the things we are looking for as a player."
This class is in the lower half of Illinois coach Ron Zook's six recruiting classes at Illinois, but it could have been much worse. Other schools were scaring recruits all year long with the notion the Illini were one-hit wonders after their Rose Bowl berth, and the tactic was paying off even before the 2009 season began.
When the Illini fell to 3-9, appearing to confirm the worst fears, several committed athletes jumped ship. Leading the way was super Johnsburg tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who switched his allegiance to Iowa. Also changing preferences were Detroit's Daniel Easterly, Kansas City defensive back Dexter McDonald, and St. Rita lineman Andy Gallik. Prospects were extremely dim at that point.
But new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, plus newcomers Greg Nord, Jeff Brohm and DeAndre Smith added new names to the prospect list and proceeded to attract some of them to the Illini. Plus, a change in offensive philosophy allowed Illinois to recruit the fullback position, and a big strong athlete was added for that purpose.
Quarterback, receiver, offensive line, fullback, linebacker and safety all benefitted from this season's recruiting cycle. Topping the list is Chandler Whitmer, the four-star athlete who is already enrolled in school. The Downers Grove South product was invited to the Elite 11 Camp and won the Most Accurate award. Providing additional depth at the position is Miles Osei, a speedy and accurate lefty from Mt.Prospect.
The Illini planned on taking only one quarterback, but Eddie McGee's interest in playing receiver left an opening. Osei was convinced to change his commitment from Northern Illinois to the Illini. Zook described the situation.
"We were gonna sign only one quarterback. But then with Eddie maybe wanting to play both quarterback and receiver, I thought it was important that we take another quarterback. I called Chandler about it. I told him I know we said we'd take only one quarterback, but this is the reason I think we maybe need to look at another guy.
"We looked at a bunch of guys, Coach Brohm, Coach Petrino and myself were all in there watching. We were able to come up with a guy we felt good about as a staff. Miles Osei has a chance to be a special guy as well.
"Everyone at the school told us how special he was. Even the principal came out and told us that. You go back and watch him on tape, and he's a competitor. He gets things done. He finds a way to make the chains move and get in the end zone. That's a quality you like to have in a quarterback."
The receiver positions missed out on two sensational players from the state of Illinois. Kyle Prater and Matt Milton left the state for USC and Tennessee, respectively. But the Illini added two tall outside receivers in Anthony Williams and Spencer Harris. And speed merchant Floridians Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines signed on. All four are impressive on film.
Four offensive linemen were signed. Niles West guard Shawn Afryl is already enrolled. Louisiana center Alex Hill is a promising prospect, and rangy tackles Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz have potential for the future.
The tight end and fullback positions will play a more important role in Petrino's new offense, so depth was needed. Evan Wilson, a 6'-6" tight end from Woodstock, Georgia, was added to the squad. And fullback Jay Prosch provides size and aggressiveness to the fullback position.
Defense was not helped as much as needed, but the linebacker and safety positions gained valuable depth and perhaps future starters. Linebackers Jonathan Brown, Mark Wilson and Denmark are football players and not just athletes. And safeties Trulon Henry, Ean Days and Earnest Thomas upgraded those positions.
Henry can also play linebacker and is the junior college transfer brother of Arrelious Benn. Days comes from a football factory at Camden County, Georgia, and he could also play running back. Germany was recruited by Arkansas as a defensive end.
Glenbard South defensive end Austin Teitsma and McHenry tackle Jake Howe are the only defensive lineman recruited, so this remains a critical area for next year's recruiting. There are no speed rushers, and more depth is needed at both end and tackle. Top defensive linemen who are both dominant and qualified are rare and difficult to recruit.
There are some good athletes in this class. They will provide depth, but the number who can provide significant early playing time is limited. Plus, there were some definite areas that were not improved. Besides the defensive line problems, there are no top-notch left tackle prospects or cover corners. No running backs were taken, but five return to the Illini varsity next year.
The new staff members upgraded recruiting in several ways.
"I think overall it helped us positively," Zook believed. "They gave us a whole new list of names. We recruit friends and family, and you get into areas where you know people. So it opened up some new areas for us where coaches have been. I was particularly impressed with how the new guys picked right up like they've been here awhile.
"There were a couple things we did on the weekends that were their suggestions that even made it better. And I thought there were some things we did that they were very excited about. So I think overall we made our recruiting weekends much better.
"There is no question in my mind. This is as good a recruiting staff as I've been around. I think everybody's gonna help uphold their end of the bargain.
"This is an experienced staff that knows what they're doing. This is a staff that's been around. I've been very impressed with the way they picked up on the student-athlete we're looking for. That's important. We've been able to go out and have some success that way."
The key now will be to see how the newcomers blend with the returnees. There is enough depth that most will not be expected to play their first years. But according to Zook, there are several who might be good enough to compete right away.
"This class is gonna solidify. It's gonna surprise a lot of people down the road. I think it's gonna turn out to be a very good year for us."