February 04, 2010
It's a rule of recruiting that all coaches are upbeat about their new players, and Ron Zook is an excited, power-positive-thinking kind of guy, generally. So when he insisted Wednesday that the latest signing class at Illinois is "going to surprise a lot of people down the road," count it as a difficult concession to the reality that success from this group -- on Zook's watch, anyway -- would stun just about everybody. A quick stroll through the message boards makes it clear enough that Illinois fans resigned themselves to another year of futility as soon it was clear last fall that Zook would be back for his sixth season, so much so that even the most hopeful Illini partisans had a hard time expressing much real disappointment in by far the most universally panned class of that tenure.
That pessimism persisted despite Zook's penchant for wooing solid talent in bleak circumstances, the one consistently admirable quality he's demonstrated throughout his beleaguered head-coaching career. At Florida, he brought in top-10 classes in 2003 and 2004 that formed the vast majority of the blue-chip lineup Urban Meyer molded into national champions in 2006; in Champaign, he somehow managed to land back-to-back top-30 classes in 2006 and 2007 off back-to-back two-win seasons in 2005 and 2006. He racked up another top-25 class after the Illini's improbable Rose Bowl run in 2007. That season, including wins over Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, was seen at the time as Zook's breakthrough, a validation of his reputation as more than just an enthusiastic recruiter and muscly water skier.
That momentum slowed a little last year when offensive coordinator and recruiting ace Mike Locksley -- credited with plucking future stars Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn from his hometown, Washington, D.C., and helping seal once-hyped quarterback Juice Williams out of Chicago -- left for the head-coaching gig at New Mexico, and nearly collapsed as the expected rebound season turned into a sobering descent to the bottom of the Big Ten standings last winter. After losing the highest-rated commitment in the class, in-state safety Corey Cooper, in a signing-day switch to Nebraska, the Illini wrapped up a 20-man crop Wednesday that included just one player (quarterback Chandler Whitmer) rated better than three stars and no one who even threatened to make a Top 100/250 list. One of the highest-rated members of the class, Louisiana center Alex Hill, said he chose the Illini over Duke when he prayed about it and decided he'd pick the school whose first letter, 'I' or 'D', showed up first on the next text message on his cell phone. ("It was my girlfriend, and it was an 'I'.") If it had come up 'D', the final score might have come up even worse:
The good news is that the hard-working members of this class will almost certainly not be worse than their more touted predecessors, many of whom (notably injury-plagued linebacker Martez Wilson and promising young cornerback Terry Hawthorne) are still around this fall for another stab at fulfilling some of the hype. But Zook's fate in Champaign was so wrapped up in establishing a solid foundation of success with his two would-be stars, Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn -- "success" being defined very loosely here as "seven or eight wins a year over multiple seasons" -- and he couldn't do it. Without running back Rashard Mendenhall (the only true star of the Zook era) serving as a focal point, Williams was inconsistent, inaccurate and incapable of keeping Benn, maybe the best raw talent in the Big Ten, involved in the offense. The defense, despite featuring the likes of Davis (now an NFL starter) and Wilson (once a five-star recruit), has consistently finished in the bottom half of the conference. Last year's team, which should have been Zook's most talented, most experienced and best-positioned to make a darkhorse run at the Big Ten title, immediately spun into a tailspin that looked like a regression to Zook's first Illini squad in 2005.
The core of that team -- the talent that a borderline contender on paper -- is off to the NFL with its tail between its legs. (Well maybe not Juice, but not for lack of natural talent.) To steal Zook's construction analogy, that group was supposed to be the foundation of a program that, instead, clearly hasn't gotten off the ground yet. If the latest crop is supposed to be "the mortar" that holds the thing together, who at this point is supposed to be the bricks?