Heath takes winding road to Illinois
Go back seven months and Zach Heath had a better chance of playing against Illinois this season than possibly joining the Illini.
The offensive lineman from American River College in Sacramento, Calif., — who orally committed to the Illini late Tuesday night — signed with Western Kentucky in mid-December. The Hilltoppers play at Illinois on Sept. 6 this season.
But then Bobby Petrino left Western Kentucky in early January to become the coach again at Louisville.
And the bladder cancer Heath’s father, Wilbur, is currently battling caused Heath to take a step back and re-evaluate.
“I figured I didn’t want to go out to a new area where I didn’t know what was going to happen with the coach,” Heath said, “or what might happen with my dad.”
When Heath might suit up for Illinois is still an ongoing process, too.
If a scholarship becomes available soon, Heath would leave American River and join the Illini for the upcoming season.
If not, he’ll play this fall with the Beavers before enrolling at Illinois for the second semester so he could go through spring practices in 2015.
If he arrives this season for the Illini, he’ll have three seasons of eligibility, and if he doesn’t arrive until the 2015 season, he’ll have two seasons of eligibilty.
“They’re going to let me know in a couple weeks about the situation,” said Heath, who stands at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds and can play any spot along the offensive line, although it appears he’ll wind up at center or guard at Illinois. “The coaches really brought off the family vibe, which was a big deal to me. They made me feel like I was going to be a part of something more than just a football program. Illinois has everything you need to be successful not only in football, but life after football.”
Heath graduated from Del Oro High School in Loomis, Calif., in 2012, but didn’t have any big-time offers and elected to try his luck at American River, located 30 minutes northeast of his hometown.
He grayshirted the 2012 season at American River before working his way into the starting lineup last fall, where he spent time at both center and both guard spots after playing tackle in high school.
“I feel I’m pretty aggressive,” Heath said. “I take a lot of anger out on the field. I think I have an advantage of being quicker than a lot of opponents, and hopefully I can keep that going.”
Illinois offensive line coach A.J. Ricker and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh were the lead recruiters on Heath, who plans to major in broadcast journalism at Illinois.
Heath met Golesh in early May, and an offer from Illinois followed shortly thereafter.
Heath took an unofficial visit to Illinois this past weekend, and decided to commit to Illinois not long after he returned home.
Heath — who had two older brothers in Jason (UNLV) and Brian (Sacramento State) play college football recently — had other offers from Cincinnati, New Mexico, San Jose State and Utah State.
“I liked all the football stuff at Illinois, it’s the Big Ten and the school was really impressive,” Heath said. “They made me feel at home. I was 99 percent sure after I visited there that this was the place for me.”