Memory Lane: Josh Brent and Zook's all-stars

Memory Lane: Josh Brent and Zook's all-stars

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: Josh Brent came to Illinois with high expectations. He wasn't alone, the BCC star just one of many blue-chippers brought in by Ron Zook in a memorable Class of 2007.

Date: Feb. 8. 2007

Headline: Wealth of talent: How it all came together

By BOB ASMUSSEN

CHAMPAIGN – The list started last February with more than 1,200 names. Unwieldy? Sure. But necessary.

By May, it had been pruned to 500. By June, it was down to 200. And in December, the Illinois recruiting list went about 50 deep.

From the giant initial list to the final product, announced Wednesday afternoon, Ron Zook's football program moves forward with the nation's No. 18 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. Twenty-one players are new to the school, including three who enrolled in January.

They picked Illinois for different reasons. Early playing time for some. Family atmosphere for others. A chance to be a part of a rebuilding project for most.

"You want guys who are willing to accept a challenge," Illinois recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Reggie Mitchell said. "The thing that I don't understand is that people think that because you're a good player, you have to go to certain schools."

"Our first class dug the hole," Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "The next class laid the foundation. This class, I think we put the roof on the structure. That's kind of the process of building it. You always want to get to Year 4 and Year 5, and your goals are to change the program around. I think we're a little ahead of schedule with the type of people we've been able to bring in the last three years."

Skeptics across the country question how Illinois put together such a class. Locksley has an answer.

"I've said it all along, if you look at our staff and look at the guys we've hired, we all have had great reputations in recruiting being people persons," Locksley said. "I think the big thing with this class, as with last year's class, we've had to rely very heavily on our ties, our connections, with people that trust us.

"Reggie Mitchell going into the Chicago Public League and landing Juice (Williams) afforded us the luxury of Martez Wilson, being in it for a few other guys and landing a Darius Purcell. Peer pressure runs society and it's the same thing in recruiting. Whether we're winning or not, it's a relationship business."

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree agrees that signing Williams in 2006 was important to the '07 class.

"It all stems from one kid," Crabtree said. "It shows you how much of a watershed recruit Juice was. He made it cool again for kids in the CPL and the Chicagoland area to go to Illinois again. He played so well. He played a lot. He did a lot of neat things. He has people excited about the future there. Kids get excited and want to be a part of that."

When the Illinois coaches recruited Williams, they promised he would have a chance to play early. Theydidn't lie. By the fourth game, Williams was the starting quarterback, replacing senior Tim Brasic.

Other freshmen got in early, too. Vontae Davis became an immediate starter at cornerback. Jeff Cumberland started at tight end. Kyle Yelton was the starting punter. Travon Bellamy played a key role in the secondary. Chris Duvalt got plenty of playing time. So did Dere Hicks. And on and on and on.

"The fact that those guys played significant roles for us showed that what we say in recruiting, we do," Locksley said. "One of Zook's big things is we're not going to tell a kid something in recruiting and when he gets here, it will be different. Next year, that kid won't be a great recruiter for us because he felt like we lied to him."

Coming off a 2-10 season, which included a seven-game losing streak, the Illini still are holding out the playing- time carrot for incoming players.

"We still going into Year 3 could sell the fact of coming in and playing early," Locksley said. "Will we be able to say that for next year's class? No. Our recruiting pitch will have to be, 'You're going to have a chance to come in and win championships. You're going to have a chance to come in and be a part of a great tradition.' "

The recruiting has been made easier at Illinois, Locksley said, because of the reaction by the returning players.

When the 2006 freshmen showed up last summer, they impressed the older guys with their attitude and talent.

"There was such a buzz about the young players," Locksley said. "You had E.B. Halsey coming in talking about what a great player Jeff Cumberland was going to be. You had Alan Ball coming in, saying, 'Vontae Davis is big time.'

"It started the process of that upward climb. The culture of the type of player we're bringing in has changed. Coach Zook says it all the time, 'Our players are our best ambassadors.' The older guys took the young guys in, even guys who were losing jobs to these guys. That's when I felt the pendulum was starting to swing in a positive direction."

Close losses to Big Ten champion Ohio State and 12-1 Wisconsin gave Locksley another selling point. He could tell the players, "If you're here, we win."

Locksley looks forward to the day when he can sell a winning program.

"Right now, we're selling a vision of winners," Locksley said. "We're winners as coaches. We're winners with the players we have in the program and that winning is coming. When you get into Year 3 and Year 4, the vision has to become a reality. We've been able to bring in enough talent, we have the depth to be successful. Now, we've got to take care of the on-the-field part of it by winning those close games we lost last year."

The organizer

Mitchell doesn't like to take credit for any of the success. In fact, he calls Zook "the recruiting coordinator."

"For him, recruiting is year-round, every day," Mitchell said. "He's hands on. That recruiting coordinator title I have is just because he doesn't want to put recruiting coordinator under the head coach. He knows every kid. He wants to get to know them."

The reality is that Mitchell has helped Illinois become a force again in the Chicago Public League. Because he recruited the area in the past, there is comfort with Mitchell for the high school coaches.

There is also growing comfort with the Illini in greater Chicagoland and in other parts of the state. The first recruit to commit came June 29, when Batavia defensive lineman Mike Garrity said "Yes." By the end of August, Chicago Morgan Park's Miami Thomas and Thornton's Craig Wilson (via Hargrave Military) had committed.

In late December, Quincy Notre Dame lineman Jack Cornell, a two-time News-Gazette All-Stater, picked Illinois. To Mitchell, that was another sign of progress.

"It's good to be able to get kids from the Public League," Mitchell said. "But now you've got a marquee kid from the state of Illinois who is not a Public League guy. Him and Mike Garrity, guys like that, who were able to say, 'Hey, it's good to go to Illinois.' "

Mitchell and the rest of the Illinois coaches work long hours on recruiting. The time really piles up in December and January. When players are visiting the campus, the coaches are on call all day and night. After the players leave, the coaches are on the road to visit more players and schools.

"I averaged probably three cities in four days per week," Locksley said. "That's cross-country from D.C. to being in the south suburbs of Chicago to going out to visit Denver. I went there every week just about."

There were letters to write. Calls to make. Text messages to send. That's why you saw Mitchell, Locksley, Zook and the rest with cell phones pinned to their ears.

"If you're recruiting six or seven kids, you're going to be talking to them two or three times a day or texting them two or three times a day," Locksley said. "Texting is unlimited. Phone call during the contact period is unlimited. You're in and out of people's homes. You're in the school to see the kid during the day. You're doing all your research, talking to coaches, counselors, janitors, principals. During the evening, you're following up those school visits by going into the home."

When Zook went to Washington, D.C. with Locksley, they hit four schools and three homes in one day. They started at 6 a.m. in the hotel lobby, finished the last home visit at 11 p.m. and went to TGIFriday's for dinner at 11:30 p.m.

"It's like that for two straight months, basically," Locksley said. "When you're trying to close and finish deals, there's always something that comes up. You're changing travel plans at the drop of a hat if a kid decides to go elsewhere."

Football administrative assistant Shari Atwell and associate recruiting coordinator Bobbi Duval handle the bulk of the travel arrangements.

Weather became an issue a few times.

"We've got to get there," Locksley said.

Turning point I

On Nov. 9, superstar receiver A.B. Benn went on national television and put on an Illinois hat. The Illinois recruiting ball was officially rolling.

"That was the Juice of this year," Locksley said. "That was the Chris Leak of Florida. He was the Pied Piper for this class, much like Juice was for us a year ago. Every class has a guy or two that tend to lead to other guys. The Robin Hood theory."

"Before then, they were all saying they were going to do it," Mitchell said. "But nobody had really done it publicly."

Notre Dame made a hard push for Benn, even after he committed to Illinois. According to a text message received from Benn, reported in Wednesday's Washington Post, a Notre Dame assistant questioned the player about Illinois' intentions. Not in a good way.

Much as the Illinois staff wants to fight back, Locksley said he won't.

"The philosophy of our head coach is that we need to concentrate on Illinois and what we have to sell," Locksley said. "We tell players all the time, 'If they're talking about us, imagine what they're doing with you.' "

Zook is also a selling point. The players feel free to walk into his office, plop down in a chair and hang out.

"They get a feel from us that we care about them," Mitchell said.

Turning point II

While Benn turned the heads of national recruits, another player did the same in Illinois. In a classy ceremony Dec. 21 at Chicago Simeon, Martez Wilson declared himself an Illini.

Like Benn, Wilson picked Illinois over a string of superpowers – Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Ohio State, Michigan and Florida among them.

"Any time you get the No. 1 player in the Midwest ..." Locksley said. "Martez and (Benn) kind of personify the Illinois (plan) because it's taking care of home first and then also being able to go battle in the national scene with a guy like Arrelious who is not from Illinois.

"In the past, if you lose your top in-state player, you've got very few chances to go out of state and get a big-time guy. That's always a priority, we're going to cut our grass before we cut our neighbors'."

"When you go to Chicago, you're not going to get them all," Mitchell said. "But you've got to get the majority of the ones you want."

Early in the recruiting process, Wilson wasn't considered a premium player. Illinois showed interest before anyone else, which ultimately helped sell the player. Quickly, word got out about the two-way star.

"It took about three clips of film that Reggie showed all of us and we said, 'This guy's big time,' " Locksley said. "We felt good about it because of the type of kid he is and his personality. If you were to do a personality test on all the kids we're recruiting, they are all similar. Gym rats, guys who love to work hard, they're exceptional athletically, great people. They are all leaders."

Wilson went to work on the rest of the class, talking to Bloomington Central Catholic defensive tackle Josh Brent, who made his commitment Dec. 26.

"It was a group of guys who decided they wanted to play together," Mitchell said. "Josh Brent and Martez were calling each other. Than Martez would call 'Big D' (D'Angelo McCray). It's huge because they're doing that on their own."

It's easy to pick out the Wilsons and the Benns in recruiting. The staff is just as proud of the "sleepers" in the class.

No. 1 on the "look out for this guy" list is linebacker Ian Thomas. A top youth boxer, Thomas has turned his full attention to football.

"I don't know how many stars he has, but in some people's minds, not enough," Locksley said. "From a talent-rich area that has tons of players like the state of Maryland, he's the Defensive Player of the Year. He's a two-year leader for one of the top programs in the country. We were able to luckily go in and get him. We'll be very thankful that we have a guy like Ian Thomas."

Only just begun

As they saw the signatures rolling into the office Wednesday morning, Mitchell and Locksley weren't patting themselves on the back.

"I'd say that we got better," Locksley said. "The ultimate goal is to improve every class and make the environment so competitive that if you lose one piece out of the puzzle, the next piece is just as good."

"It's a sense that of the guys we went after, the ones we got believed in what we told them and believed in us," Mitchell said.

Locksley was looking ahead. To the '07 season.

"In the end, it's going to boil down to the W's and the L's," Locksley said. "Very few championships are won on signing day. It helps. To be satisfied with signing a Top 25 class, it isn't going to help you to win the Big Ten championship. You've got to get those guys on the field and put them in position to be successful.

"When that class becomes a winner and becomes a class that has a winning record in the Big Ten, that's when you look back at the class and say, 'Look what your class was able to do.' "

Mitchell already was thinking about '08 recruiting.

"It's like being on a treadmill," Mitchell said. "You're relieved when you go off. And you know the very next day, you've got to get on the treadmill and go again."

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