Here Come The Illini!

National Recruiting Analyst
Posted Dec 14, 2006
Jamie Newberg, National Recruiting Analyst

Every year there are surprises in recruiting. Two years ago it was Arizona and Nebraska, last season it was Ole Miss and this year it will be Illinois. Their latest coup, defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray, just committed to the Fighting Illini over FSU.

Here come the Fighting Illini.Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook shocked the recruiting world last month by getting a commitment from the nation's No. 2 rated wide receiver in Arrelious Benn (Washington D.C.). They did it once again moments ago by landing another five-star recruit in defensive tackle/end D'Angelo McCray (Jacksonville, Fla.). McCray, who was previously committed to the University of Florida, picked Illinois over Florida State.

“I picked Illinois,” said McCray. “Florida State was a great program with a lot of tradition but when I went to Illinois I just really loved the team atmosphere. The people there really stick together. Coach Zook is doing some good things and I think they are going to have a great season next year.”

This is huge for the Fighting Illini for several reasons. First, anytime you are rebuilding a program like Zook and his staff are you have to replenish the trenches. McCray gives them one of the most athleticly gifted defensive prospects among the Class of 2007 who will have a great opportunity to make an immediate impact on the team next season. Second, this was a major recruiting victory over his old rivals in the Sunshine State – FSU and Florida. For Zook and his staff they have to have a recruiting precense outside the state of Illinois. They want to have one in Florida and this gives them some great credibility with the high school coaches in Florida and the players. Third, with the addition of both Benn and McCray to the Illinois commitment list it gives Zook and his program so unbelievable momentum as we enter the final weeks leading up to National Signing Day. Many big name recruits have the Illini high on their list.

In addition to Benn and McCray four-star quarterback Clint Brewster (Denver, Co.), wide receiver Anthony Morris (Harvey, Ill.), offensive tackles Craig Wilson (Chatham, Va,) and Mike Garrity (Batavia, Ill.), center Mark Jackson (Cincinnati, Ohio), defensive tackle Daryle Ballew ( Cincinnati, Ohio), defensive end Steve Matas ( Mentor, Ohio), linebacjer Enrique Robertson (Maple Heights, Ohio), safeties Brian Gamble (Massilon, Ohio) and Nathan Bussey (Washington D.C) and cornerback Marcus Thpmas (Chicago, Ill.) are all headed to Champagne.

What potentially lies ahead for Zook and his program in terms of recruiting could set the stage for Illinois turning the corner as a team trying to catch Big 10 powers like Ohio State and Michigan. They will never be able to do it unless they start recruiting and signing the big time prospects and athletes. That's what they are about to do if things fall their way.

Some very high profiled bluechippers that could end up at Illinois are running back Robert Hughes (Chicago, Ill.), offensive tackle Jack Cornell (Quincy, Ill.), defensive tackle Marvin Austin (Washington D.C.), defensive end Martez Wilson (Chicago, Ill.),and defensive tackle Josh Brent (Bloomington, Ill.). The Fighting Illini are battling Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michiganm and Wisconsin for Hughes and they should have the inside track on this powerful bruising back. Cornell says tht Nebraska and Illinois are the co-leaders for him at this time while it is believed that the nation's top prospect, defensive tackle Marvin Austin, is leaning to Illinois and USC. Wilson is also favoring Illinois but high powered programs like Michigan, Notre Dmae, Ohio State and USC are trying to convince him to sign with their respective programs. A major recruiting battle in currently brewing for Brent between Illinois and the No. 1 team in the country, Ohio State. They both lead for Brent.

Will Zook and Illinois land the great prospects mentioned above? Well, they probably won't get all of them but they should sign most on that list. And they will get others and finish with what will likely be a top 10 – 15 class in the country. More importantly, they are loading up with the talent. Last season they brought in Isiah “Juice” Williams, a very exciting and promising athletic quarterback. They also have some other nice pieces like cornerback Vontae Davis and running back Rashard Mendenhall. The point here is that Zook and his staff have the ability to go out and sign highly recruited prospects and they can compete and beat anyone on kids. It's not going to happen overnight but this program in two or three years should have a great deal of talent and then it's up to the coaches and players to make it happen on the field. Until then it's all about the recruiting battles for Illinois and Zook, as their efforts off the field are getting better results each year.

“Ron Zook is a master recruiter,” said National Recruiting Analyst Allen Wallace. “It's a part of the game that he really enjoys, which is not something a lot of head coaches can say. He excels in recruiting because of his personality, his high energy and most of all, his ability to sincerely relate with prospects directly. He's undaunted, relentless and is uniquely capable of helping his recruiting targets focus on the future and its positive possibilities as opposed to any downsides associated with a program's past or present.”

Zook is widely considered one of the nation's top recruiters among head coaches. He also has a very good staff in terms of recruiting including an ace in offensive coordinator Mike Lockley. Locksley landed Benn last month and Dan Dish, a former high school coach from the Jacksonville (Fla.) Ed White High School, recruited McCray.

“Ron Zook has really made the rest of the college football world take notice of him and his team,” said Midwest Recruiting Analyst Bob Lichtenfels. “And Mike Locksley is hands down one of the best in the business.”

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