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Throwback Thursday: Illinois Football’s 2008 Recruiting Class

Ron Zook's fourth recruiting class was arguably his best as several NFL players emerged.

Ohio State v Illinois

Say what you want about Ron Zook, but the man could sell ketchup popsicles to women in white gloves.

It's a whole lot easier when you win and receive a Rose Bowl invitation the year prior. The Rose Bowl didn't exactly go as planned, but winning nine games, including victory of No. 1 Ohio State, puts you in the spotlight — especially for potential recruits.

That sell, and the promise for future glory, is what led the recruiting class of 2008 to come together. It turned out to be a doozy of a class for Illinois.

Ron Zook had connections in several states for players, but none more so than the Sunshine State. Florida was where Zook cut his teeth as a major college head coach, following a legend and trying to keep the good times rolling for the Gators.

And while he brought in the talent, the wins didn't follow. Players like Chris Leak were misused and put into positions ill-fitting their talents. He wasn't a terrible coach for the University of Florida, but the bar had been set exceedingly high, and losing to teams like Mississippi State and Ole Miss was unacceptable in the eyes of the fanbase.

At Illinois, the stakes were much less, and it allowed Zook to bring in the talent while promising a bright future to prospective targets. It worked to mixed results during his first two classes.

Rashard Mendenhall, a five-star running back from Niles West, bought in. In 2006, it was a superstar quarterback from the high school of Dick Butkus fame, who said yes to the Illini. The pieces were falling into place, but the winning hadn't come yet.

The 2007 class really set the bar high, as Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson — two nationally-rated recruits — blazed their own trail and signed with the Illini. Then came nine wins. The Rose Bowl. Validation for the promises Zook had made. The promise of more to come. 2008.

If you go by simple rankings, 247 had the Illinois football class of 2008 as the 22nd-best class in the nation, third in the Big Ten. However, it was several of the players who didn't factor highly in the rankings who had the largest impact on Illinois football seasons to come.

Players like Jeff Allen, a three-star offensive lineman from Chicago who ranked just inside the top-100 at his position of offensive guard and was from King College Prep (which Illinois hadn’t recruited well in recent years), was widely overlooked by most recruiting services and colleges.

Or Whitney Mercilus, a player Illinois only recruited to get closer to a higher-ranked player, only for Mercilus to become a star and overcome his 700 ranking.

The recruiting services also nailed it with their rankings of Corey Liuget, A.J. Jenkins, Graham Pocic, and several others, as well.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but there are at least eight players in this class who were drafted into the NFL or are still playing in the League, including three first-round picks (Liuget, Mercilus and Jenkins).

You can talk about how a player like Jenkins was taken a bit too high or how some players in this class who were highly-ranked didn't achieve the success their talents afforded them (Cordale Scott and Patrick Nixon-Youman), but that's a fairly impressive year for Illinois football.

This class also helped Illinois make back-to-back bowl games (both wins) and helped make the Fighting Illini a relevant entity in a sport in which relevance on a national level has been very hard to come by.

It's a testament to that coaching staff, and more specifically, to the players who put in the work and made themselves into what they became.

Who knows? Maybe in 20 years, we'll be talking about the class of 2019 in the same light.