There is a dichotomy when it comes to Illinois football recruiting. On the one hand, Ron Zook and his staff have brought in far better athletes than were present when they arrived on campus. On the other hand, the top teams in the country are landing a higher percentage of the highest rated prospects according to those who consider themselves experts on the subject.
Zook doesn't turn to the talent evaluators for his information on recruits; he prefers to do his own evaluations. He won't purchase their recruiting material, and he won't share his evaluations with them. This has not endeared him to some of the best known recruiting "gurus."
It is true that schools like Florida, University of Southern California and Ohio State attract a higher number of so-called 5-star athletes from around the country than others, based on rankings of websites such as Scout.com and others. But Zook takes exception to the notion you have to recruit 5-star players to win.
"I disagree with that. Who says they're the top 100 kids? It's easy to pick out a great football player."
Illinois went 9-4 in 2007 and played in the Rose Bowl with only a couple 5-star players on the roster. Getting a top player is one thing. Coaching him and molding him into the team's chemistry are quite another.
"To me, what you have to do is, you have to take these players and manage them. You have to develop a winning attitude and a belief system. Football is a hard game to win. There's always gonna be adversity in the game and the season. How are you gonna handle that?"
Many people love to follow recruiting, in part because of the intense competition between schools for good players, and in part because they believe it will predict accurately future won-loss records. Of course, if it really did predict the future, there would be no need to play the games on the field. The outcome would already be known.
"You go back to 2007 when we went to the Rose Bowl. In 2008 and 2009, on paper we were a better football team. Why didn't we reach the same levels?
"That's the thing I think frustrates our fans and frustrates us as a coaching staff. I think the biggest part of it is getting everybody on the same page believing in the same thing and going for the same thing."
As difficult as it is to reach the pinnacle of success in any given year, it is doubly difficult to repeat that success.
"You go back to look at teams the next year after they win the Super Bowl, and they have trouble making it to the playoffs the next year. I can't explain the phenomena, but it's that little edge, that little extra that it's up to us coaches to do."
Zook and his assistants knew it would be hard to repeat. They put returnees through their paces throughout winter conditioning and on into spring and fall practice in 2008. A 5-7 audit on the field was a disappointing result for a team returning the bulk of its best players.
Perhaps there was less hunger to win than the previous year. Certainly, there was a target on their backs that hadn't existed previously. Those who had been willing followers in 2007 had difficulty becoming leaders themselves once the strong senior class graduated. Injuries and misfortune reared their ugly heads.
Regardless, Zook knew he had to keep upgrading recruiting. Even with quality at the top, a team needs a depth of talent obtained through yearly recruiting success.
"Always. Always upgrade your recruiting. I don't think there's any question you can always (do better)."
Zook has a well-deserved reputation as a great recruiter. NCAA rules have stymied him somewhat, preventing him from going on the road in May to evaluate talent and eliminating his favored text messages. He has found alternative means of reaching the people needed, but competition is fierce.
In addition, any signs of weakness in the Illini program serve as cannon fodder for competitors. They relish the chance to bad-mouth the Illini with recruits. If prospects fail to think for themselves, the Illini recruiting effort might suffer.
This past season saw several roadblocks to recruiting success. The 3-9 audit on the field allowed competitors to scare prospects into thinking Zook would be fired soon. Changing six assistant coaches had to hurt, at least temporarily.
Still, the Illini salvaged their recruiting season with some late pickups. Zook believes the quality is better than the evaluators suggest.
"I'm pretty excited about this recruiting year. I don't really care what the people who don't really know say."
Illini fans have criticized special teams at Illinois for several years now. All sorts of problems have cropped up at times, from inconsistent kicking to a lack of kickoff and punt coverage. What many fans don't understand is that recruiting has much to do with the success of special teams.
All coaches prefer to use younger players on special teams, and the Illini are no exception. First of all, offensive and defensive regulars need rest in between game action. And second, it gives the younger ones a chance to acclimate to game action and gain the experience and confidence to perform their best when they take on more responsibility the following season.
If a team fails to back up one good recruiting season with two or three others, there is less quality depth to use on special teams.
"You always want your special teams to perform," Zook understates. "When you look at the best special teams, you look at the middle of the roster. You have got to have that built up.
"The teams that perform well year in and year out, their programs continue to move on. Their younger guys can play special teams and be good that way."
Illlini squad depth has not always been sufficient to guarantee success on special teams. In 2007, there were a couple four-year special team veterans who were walk-ons. Several others were upperclassmen backups. While they weren't perfect, they were more than adequate.
Since then, the Illini have resorted at times to using regulars on special teams to improve play. When this happens, their performance suffers accordingly. College football is a violent, highly physical game. Without sufficient rest, even the best conditioned athletes break down late in the game.
In addition, all sorts of unusual things have happened to Illini special teams. When special team players struggle early in the season, fan and coach pressure increases. This can make the players fear making mistakes. In turn, their muscles tighten and they can't show their normal speed and fluidity.
Zook thinks that may have been involved, along with more unpredictable events.
"It could be. This is rub of the green...it happens. But two years ago we had three different guys being yanked down right in the hole on a return that went for a touchdown. How could somebody not see that? But that's part of the game. Things happen and then everybody wonders what's going on."
In parts five and six of this nine part series, Zook reviews the frustrations of the 2009 season.