Things were looking pretty grand for Ron Zook in early 2009. Sure, the team was coming off a disappointing 5-7 season but surely that could just be written off as a hangover from the Rose Bowl year. Taking the Illini to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 24 years certainly earns a man a great deal of slack. And then landing the 31st ranked recruiting class in the nation (6th in the Big Ten) doesn't hurt.
But the seasons changed and soon enough it was fall and the true end of the Ron Zook era began. The 2009 football team finished with a 3-9 record and Zook was forced to fire almost all of his coaching staff to save his job. Somehow a team that's roster featured Juice Williams, Mikel Leshoure, Arrelious Benn, A.J. Jenkins, Jeff Cumberland, Mike Hoomanawanui, Corey Liuget, Whitney Mercilus, Josh Brent, Terry Hawthorne, and Martez Wilson finished with only three wins. That ... makes no sense.
And it hurts recruiting. A bad record combined with the forced sacking of the men who spent the past year or so building relationships with the recruits would lead to a downturn at any university. It happened at Illinois and never really stopped happening. The 2010 class was ranked 52nd nationally, which doesn't sound too terrible at first. But then you remember that there were only around 10-12 teams in most of the power conferences at the time. And you notice that this ranked 11th in the Big Ten. The 2010 class was made up of 28 recruits. Here are their fates.
1- QB Chandler Whitmer. The crown jewel of the recruiting class never played a single snap for Illinois. After redshirting his first season, he transferred to Butler Community College out in El Dorado, Kansas before transferring to UConn. Whitmer started all 12 games in 2012 for the Huskies and the first four in 2013 before being replaced.
2- WR Darius Millines. While Millines did spend three seasons with the team, his story doesn't end much happier than Whitmer's. Over three seasons and 32 games, Darius caught 53 passes for 579 yards and only two touchdowns. Millines was then kicked off the team last May for unspecified rules violations.
3- S Fritz Rock. While Rock started his career at Illinois as a safety, he was eventually moved to wide receiver. Fritz caught five passes for 50 yards in 2012 before deciding to transfer. He'll be playing his senior year this fall at Wagner College, an FCS team from Staten Island, New York.
I'm going to take a brief pause here to point something rather obvious out. This was not a very good recruiting class to begin with. But when you get essentially zero production from the top three recruits, 2-10 and 4-8 seasons start to make a lot more sense.
4- LB Houston Bates. Bates would be switched away from being a traditional linebacker into a LEO, and went on to have a fairly decent junior season, racking up 11 TFL and 3.5 sacks. But then he decided to transfer closer to his home in Louisiana for his final season. He is still yet to land with a new team.
5- LB Jonathan Brown. Finally, a story with a happy ending. Jonathan Brown played all four years and if not for a junior season lost to injuries, may have found himself drafted last week. Brown signed as an UFA with the Arizona Cardinals.
6- S Earnest Thomas III. Thomas redshirted his first season before being turned into a STAR. Thomas is one of the few members of the 2010 recruiting class that will be playing in the fall. The safety will be a key leader for the defense.
7- OLB Mark Wilson. Wilson never wound up making it to Champaign. Initial academic issues led to him transferring to Fullerton Community College before ultimately ending up at Troy. Wilson should be starting for the Trojans this fall.
8- OG Alex Hill. Hill redshirted his freshman year and has played all over the offensive line in his time with the Illini. He'll be a vital part of the offensive line this fall.
9- OT Michael Heitz. The same goes for Heitz.
10- OG Shawn Afryl. I can't find anything on Afryl past 2012. I think he fell into a mystery spot.
11- TE Evan Wilson. Wilson never found too much playing time, but he made it count when he did. The 6-6 giant may have only caught 27 passes, but 8 were for touchdowns. Wilson signed as an UFA with the Dallas Cowboys.
12- QB Miles Osei. Osei spent his first three years buried in the depth chart as a QB before officially being turned into a WR for his senior season. Osei was the ultimate trooper though, putting up with everything gracefully.
13- S Ean Days. Days redshirted at safety his first year at Illinois before Zook turned him into a running back. Days is now the starting fullback for the Georgia State Eagles.
14- WR Spencer Harris. Harris put in four years as a workman wide receiver. He had great moments, but it seemed like he had far more that made you want to strangle him.
15- TE A.J. Williams. Somehow there is less to find about Williams than Afryl. I don't believe he ever suited up for Illinois.
16- OLB Brandon Denmark. Denmark would play two uneventful years at Illinois as a backup before transferring to Florida A&M and becoming a LEO.
17- OT Simon Cvijanovic. Simon will be a redshirt senior this year, leading the offensive line. His younger brother Peter just signed with the 2013 Illini class.
18- DE Austin Teitsma. Teitsma will be anchoring the defensive line this fall. He became a full time starter last season, compiling 55 tackles (5.5 TFL).
19- DE Jake Howe. Howe will be a backup on the defensive line this fall. Could have been more, but he lost the entire 2012 season to a broken arm, greatly hindering his development.
20- FB Jay Prosch. Oh, Jay Prosch. Prosch was a fantastic fullback in an Illini offense that didn't use one. He transferred to Auburn to be closer to his dying mother. Prosch was drafted in the 6th round by the Houston Texans last week.
21- DE DeJazz Woods. Woods will be another backup defensive lineman this season.
22- OLB Alex Porter. Porter seems to have been lost in the shuffle as well.
23- K Patrick Dunn. Dunn never played for the team.
24- CB Nick Forzley. Forzley joined the team as a walk-on. He recorded one tackle.
25- OT Joe VanderHeyden. No clue. Last record of him is being listed as a member of the 2011 team.
26- K Nick Immekus. Immekus left the team of his own free will after the 2012 season.
27- K Brad Janitz. This is the third kicker on the list. That's a problem. Janitz became the backup punter. He graduates tomorrow.
28- WR Jake Kumerow. Kumerow now plays WR at UW-Whitewater.
Those 28 men were supposed to be vital pieces of the 2012 and 2013 Fighting Illini football teams that finished a combined 6-18. Look at how many of those players never played at Illinois. Look how many transferred away or were booted from the team. Only nine of the 28 went on the become anything more than depth. This is a key reason why the Illini completely fell apart after consecutive seasons of bowl games. Part two in the series likely won't be up until Monday, as I'll be driving back to Plainfield this weekend.