clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Remember when recruiting was relevant?

New, 2 comments

Zook and Co. pulled in some big-time players in his tenure.

The lull of 2019 recruiting has been disconcerting to say the least.

The three players we have committed are excellent fits for this team for sure. However, three commits at this point is worrisome. Not panic-inducing, but not exactly ideal. For comparison, Minnesota and Iowa almost have their classes full at around 20 apiece. Illinois has three. That's not great, Bob.

Remember when Illinois didn't have to struggle and strain to gain commitments from top players on our board? When Ron Zook could sell ketchup popsicles to white-gloved women?

Not that everything went according to plan for Zook. His inability to capitalize on long-term momentum after his Rose Bowl berth effectively ended his tenure. When you start 6-0, and lose your last six in a row (especially with a new AD in town) that tolls the death knell for many coaches. Even at Illinois.

That being said, there was a four-year stretch where things seemed comparatively easy as opposed to today's current predicament. From 2006-09, Illinois averaged around the 24th-best class in the country according to 247 Sports, and averaged anywhere between third and fifth in the conference in recruiting rankings.

Illinois also signed two of its greatest recruits ever in that period. Five-star wide receiver Arrelious Benn from Washington DC, and five-star defensive end (turned linebacker) Martez Wilson from Chicago Simeon.

I specifically remember a time when prominent Notre Dame alums (*cough* Regis *cough*) accused the Illini of cheating to bring Benn to Champaign. That's how nationally relevant Illinois had become. Nevermind that they had assembled a coaching staff full of ace recruiters who had ties in multiple major metropolitan areas (including DC). The Illini were being noticed. For something positive. In recruiting.

It's not as if Ron Zook had major success to sell either. He was 4-19 overall in his first two seasons at Illinois. Those teams looked physically overmatched at times throughout 2005 and 2006.

The writing was on the wall for a big breakout, however. The Illini pushed No. 1 Ohio State to the brink at the tail end of 2006. J Leman and the defense looked stout. It was just a matter of time and recruiting.

Arrelious Benn. Wilson. De'Angelo McCray. Josh Brent. Jack Cornell, Jr. Vontae Davis. Jeff Cumberland. Juice Williams. Rashard Mendenhall, even. They bought in when no one else would. They helped lead Illinois to one of its best seasons in school history. They cleared a path for other players to choose the Illini as trendy.

2008 was even better. So many players from that class got them back to bowl eligibility and NFL Draft prominence. Corey Liuget, AJ Jenkins, and Whitney Mercilus became three of a select few Illini to become first-round draft picks. It was a talent windfall for a school that hasn't had much to celebrate on the gridiron.

Who could forget the consensus four-star quarterback from Kansas City in the class of 2009, finished first all time in Illinois history for rushing yards as a quarterback, and took us to back to back bowl games? Scheelhaase is personally one of my favorite players ever, and he was a huge recruiting win to follow Juice Williams.

Of course, recruiting is an inexact science. Not every highly-rated player works out. Not every two-star anonymous is a dud. But, say what you will about Ron Zook, he could find players with talent. From everywhere.

I've been relatively pleased with the recruiting of Lovie Smith. I just remember it seeming a whole lot easier a decade ago. If Lovie wins, it should return. That would be enjoyable to watch.