When Ron Zook was hired at Illinois in December 2004, many observers wanted to see how the oft-criticized former Florida coach would handle a difficult job. Things went downhill fast for Ron Turner after 2001, and Zook clearly had his work cut out for him in succeeding Turner.
While Zook took a beating from the fans and media throughout his tenure at Florida, no one questioned his ability to recruit. Zook put most of the pieces in place that Urban Meyer used to win a national championship last season. Meanwhile, Zook won just four games in his first two seasons at Illinois.
What a difference a year makes. The Illini are 7-3 with two regular-season games remaining. The turnaround can be attributed to Zook's recruiting efforts, and things only look to be getting better.
Zook's recruiting paid off nearly immediately. In 2006, Illinois had the No. 30 class in the nation; last year, the Illini jumped to No. 20. Some of the young talent from that class, including wide receiver Arrelious Benn, is already making a big impact. And sophomore quarterback Juice Williams is starting to show why he was rated so highly coming out of Chicago.
The staff has done a nice job in-state for the most part, keeping three of Illinois' top five prospects at home in each of those first two classes. It helped having prospects like defensive end Martez Wilson in its backyard.
Zook hasn't been able to keep most of the state's best players at home this year. Linebackers Steven Filer and Darius Fleming and defensive tackle Sean Cwynar have committed to Notre Dame, while defensive tackle Garrett Goebel has chosen Ohio State.
Still, Zook has continued to have success recruiting out-of-state prospects. That should come as no surprise, given his track record. How many would have predicted last year that Benn (who is from Washington, D.C.) would come to Illinois, spurning offers from the likes of Miami, Notre Dame and Florida State?
This class has a national feel, with commitments from seven states and the District of Columbia. Safety Donsay Hardeman, currently at Georgia Military Academy, could make an immediate impact. Zook again has had success in D.C., luring defensive tackle Reggie Ellis. Recent addition Corey Liuget is an athletic defensive end from Florida who passed up offers from Miami, Florida State, Auburn, Georgia and Michigan in favor of the Illini.
Zook has even had success in North Carolina, beating out Louisville, California, Oregon and Iowa for quarterback Jacob Charest. That's an exception, though. Zook hasn't made it a habit to aggressively pursue prospects from the South -- aside from those in Florida. Ohio and Pennsylvania also have been areas of focus.
It doesn't seem as though there are many distinct patterns when it comes to Illinois' recruiting efforts; everyone is fair game, regardless of location. Zook has put together a staff that has the energy and charisma to beat out some of the nation's most successful programs.
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has proven to be one of the top recruiters in the country. He's responsible for luring Benn to Illinois and has built a good pipeline from D.C., where he grew up, to Champaign.
This Illinois class currently is ranked No. 19 nationally, and the Illini have several more scholarships left. In recent years, some of the program's top commitments have come in the two months leading up to National Signing Day. The ability to close strong is a testament to the efforts of the staff, and has given them momentum heading into the next recruiting class. Ohio State and Michigan usually rule the roost in the Big Ten when it comes to recruiting, but watch out for the Illini.
First visit good for Pryor: The nation's top player, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, officially visited Ohio State last weekend and came away impressed. Ohio State long has been considered Pryor's leader, but he said he still wants to check out West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee and perhaps Penn State before making a decision. He said he likely was dropping Texas from his list this week or next.
Alabama steals one from Tennessee:Nick Saban went into Tennessee and pulled out one of the top players, offensive lineman Barrett Jones. Jones chose Alabama over the Vols, Florida and North Carolina. Jones, from Memphis, is the No. 9 offensive tackle in the country.
Georgia adds two: Georgia has the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation and added two more commitments. Running back Dontavius Jackson and athlete Sanders Commings chose the Bulldogs over numerous other offers. Jackson is the biggest prize; he's the No. 5 tailback in the nation.