Tate: Illini are losing more than just games
Read the transcript from Loren Tate and Jim Turpin's chat here.
CHAMPAIGN – If you challenge me to a game of choose-up-sides and let me have first pick at every position, two things will happen.
One, some of your players will, for a variety of reasons, turn out better than mine. But I'll win most of the games because I've got more good players.
That's the stranglehold advantage that Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, as three football examples, have on Illinois. They possess clear edges in tradition, attendance and resources, and have always recruited more quality players. Now, with UI arrows pointing down and coach Ron Zook's approval rating lower than that of Congress (21 percent by one recent poll), the syndrome is manifesting itself in yet another recruiting class.
"That's why the games at Indiana and Purdue are so important," said Jeff Johnson, Rivals.com guru on Illinois recruiting. "You can only recruit on hope so long. Illinois desperately needs something good to happen."
Just to stay within shouting range. Just to keep up with the Minnesotas and Wisconsins. Recruiting, after all, is the lifeblood of success and, when things were going bad for Zook in 2005-06, incoming classes were perceived as a reason for optimism.
Let's all agree that player evaluations by Rivals.com and Scout.com are as erratic as a Kansas weather forecast. Still, these numbers mean something.
– Every Big Ten team has more early commitments than Illinois. According to Rivals.com, Penn State has 19 commits of which 14 are four-star prospects, Ohio State 13 and eight, Michigan 19 and four, Michigan State 14 and four, Minnesota 18 and two, Iowa 17 and two, Wisconsin 15 and none, Indiana 22 and none, Purdue 14 and none and Northwestern 10 and none. Illinois has nine, of which two have four-star rankings. And while those two, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz of Johnsburg and defensive back Corey Cooper of Proviso East, confirm their intention to attend Illinois, they're hedging their bets.
Fiedorowicz has said he'll visit Iowa and Wisconsin while Cooper has scheduled trips to Notre Dame, Arizona and Tennessee.
– Want to know why the same teams, with a few exceptions, dominate the Top 25 year after year? Consider that Texas has verbals from 16 four-star players, LSU 15 and Oklahoma 12. Is that an advantage, or what? Southern Cal has eight four-star and two five-star standouts. Florida has 12 four-stars and one five-star. A lot of these high-ranked stars will fizzle, but these programs start with more top-rated players in a single class than Illinois and others in the Big Ten's mid-range attract in four years.
– The state of Illinois is down in talent. Otherwise, how do you explain that the 10 Big Ten schools other than the UI have 161 verbals, and only nine are from Illinois. Northwestern has yet to draw a single player from its own state.
Illini need 'a catalyst'
"We talk to a lot of high school players, and they're still saying the right things," Johnson said. "There'll be a lot of prospects on campus for the Michigan game (Oct. 31). The Illini need something positive to happen. They need to be 3-4 when Michigan comes to town. Iowa and Wisconsin are working hard to influence Fiedorowicz to change his mind."
Iowa senior tight end Tony Moeaki caught six passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's 30-28 defeat of Michigan. All-star Travis Beckum has graduated, but the Badgers are still emphasizing throws to the tight end, Garrett Graham (27 catches so far). Even with UI offensive coordinator Mike Schultz coaching the tight ends, not many passes are being thrown that direction. With Michael Hoomanawanui hurt Saturday, the Illini threw no balls to the tight end. And Hoomanawanui has just five catches so far. You can see what Iowa and Wisconsin are selling to a 6-foot-7 speedster who wants the ball.
"Negative recruiting is going strong," said Scout.com's Jack Lyman. "Opponents are saying Illinois was a one-year wonder, a flash-in-the-pan, and using that against them. It is hard to compare this upcoming class with other Zook classes because they don't have the numbers. They can't bring in 25-plus like they did before. This class won't have the depth.
"The Illini team desperately needs something to serve as a catalyst," Lyman said. "The results of these games affects recruiting. Sean Hickey, a big tackle from Pennsylvania, might be the next player to commit if he thinks Illinois can be a winner. He is also looking at Syracuse and Boston College. Players like Hickey are being advised to wait and see what happens."
– UI commit Chandler Whitmer of Downers Grove South received four stars from Scout.com but is ranked by Rivals.com behind Prospect's Miles Osei and Wheaton North's Taylor Graham as the top quarterbacks in the state. Based on the first half of the season, Johnson says the uncommitted Osei is Player of the Year. Graham, who was born in Columbus when his father, Kent Graham, was playing for Ohio State, is the lone Illinoisan committed to the Buckeyes.
– Darryl Lee, linebacker from Florida, is attending Parkland and will count among next year's UI recruits. St. Louisan Jerry Brown, a standout defensive end last spring, lost eligibility but is still here and may want to return. And tackle D'Angelo McCray is sitting out in junior college (Coffeyville) and is interested in coming back.
– Mike Locksley, who raided Washington, D.C., for talent while here, has taken his lariat to New Mexico where he has attracted and gained verbals from nearly 20 players from the nation's capital ... even as he is on the verge of being fired. Lineman Ugo Uzodinma transferred to New Mexico last month, leaving the UI nine D.C. players on its two-deep chart. Look for those numbers to dwindle in the future.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.