Tate: Recruiting bummer no cause for panic

Tate: Recruiting bummer no cause for panic

The News-Gazette Sports Page gang talks about arguments with coaches here.

CHAMPAIGN – Whew! Football recruiting is in the rearview mirror. Not very encouraging for the Illini, was it? Ron Zook and his new gang salvaged what they could with 21 signees, mostly from distant precincts. It fell short of his previous standards.

But for those of us living in the now, we'll worry about 2012 later. Meanwhile, Zook has plenty of talent returning from more highly ranked classes to make things interesting for the two years that matter, the next two.

No, this is not a prediction that Illinois will defeat Missouri, Penn State and Ohio State early next season, or that the "winnable" home dates with Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota will be walkovers. And you'll never find a prediction that Illinois will defeat Northwestern. Let's not go overboard. But coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have tested athletes to work with as they make innovations that will draw attention right through the spring game April 24.

Yes, there are question marks. A new pro-style attack will put three young quarterbacks – Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer – on relatively equal footing in the duel for Juice Williams' position. The defense will have a new look with Dan Disch sharing linebacking coaching duties with newcomer Ron West. Zook wouldn't hire a full-time coach to handle one position. What that tells us is that the UI, short of defensive linemen, may be leaning toward a 3-lineman, 4-linebacker look with Martez Wilson taking on a Simeon Rice role – it's called Bandit – in which he'll rush from an end position at times and also drop in coverage.

It is unfortunate that Koenning must prepare his new scheme while withholding Wilson, standout end Clay Nurse and safeties Miami Thomas and Garrett Edwards this spring. Look for 6-foot-6 DE Michael Buchanan, undersized but quick, to train at Wilson's likely position this spring.

Young and experienced

My board has roughly 60 players, many of whom played last season, with legitimate shots to contribute. And most of them will be back for the eight home games in 2011.

Up front, the only seniors in my two-deep tight end and O-line positions are Randall Hunt and Ryan Palmer. So 10 of the top 12 at these positions have at least two remaining seasons, and possible starters Hugh Thornton, Graham Pocic and Tyler Sands have three. Any O-lineman under 300 pounds is unusual, so there's nothing to be pessimistic about there.

Hard-running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford are already tested as upcoming juniors, and new backfield coach DeAndre Smith will be looking for ways to work in fleet sophomore Justin Green. Again, they're young but experienced.

And while waiting for the freshmen to arrive, late-season starters Fred Sykes and Jack Ramsey head up a seven-man receiving corps with just three seniors: Jarred Fayson, Eddie McGee and Chris James.

Defensively, we won't be able to judge the trenches until we see if Nurse is fully healthy and whether huge tackle Josh Brent gets his grades in shape at Parkland. Repeating, the D-line is thin. But it could be adequate if two touted Floridians, 290-pound junior Corey Liuget and redshirted 280-pound Akeem Spence (those are 2009 weights), meet expectations. Beyond that, my unofficial check finds 20 linebackers and defensive backs who have played previously ... of which 12 have started: Edwards, Martez Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Nate Bussey, Russ Ellington, Ian Thomas, Evan Frierson, Miami Thomas, Ashante Williams, Walt Aikens, Terry Hawthorne and Travon Bellamy.

Showing class

Don't misrepresent this message. This isn't a prediction of great things to come. The Big Ten is too good (four bowl wins against Top 15 teams) at the top, and the UI's recent missteps too fresh. It is rather to point out that whatever misgivings Illini Nation may have about a disjointed recruiting campaign – seven publicized decommits – Zook and his staff have plenty of experienced talent to work with.

On the strategy side, the new hybrid approach to the defense will give rivals something to think about. We can look for more pass-rush blitzes coming from different angles.

Both coordinators will have their fingers on the hot buttons. Koenning will be in charge of a secondary that has been in desperate need of a lift. And Petrino will handle the receivers who, as he pointed out, "can inspire the entire team when they start catching passes." Petrino will do his best to see to that.

Quarterback is anyone's guess. Charest has experience so he'll get the early call. But there is a belief among some departed staffers that Scheelhaase possesses the mobility, smarts and accuracy to steal the position. All three QBs come highly regarded. Scheelhaase was a four-star pick by Scout.com and Rivals.com, and he has four years remaining.

Illinois may not be a title contender but is a lot more prepared for the future than one mediocre recruiting year might indicate.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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Jam wrote on February 16, 2010 at 7:02 am

Thanks for the positive article. UI often faces negative recruiting so there is no need to feed the fodder of the Chicagoland recruiting combine (Northwestern, Iowa, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue) with negative speculations. More positive articles are as welcome as are wins on the field.

JimOATSfan wrote on February 16, 2010 at 8:02 am

Good big-picture update Loren - thanks. I think Illini Nation will be watching in 2010 for signs of a newly energized squad, playing smart and consistent football. If, IF, the Illini beat Missouri in Game 1 : well then all bets are off! Rose-y excitement will abound. I like the new coaching hires - great choices that will work and I think the next two years will include great games played and won by the Illini.

TotalIlliniFan wrote on February 16, 2010 at 9:02 am

I like the idea of both coordinators having "their fingers on the hot buttons", implying they will do what it takes to get results. We are over coach speak, going back to watch films, and minimizing glarring problems.

Illinigrad wrote on February 16, 2010 at 10:02 am

Just keep Coach Zook away from the FB hot button and instead on the recruiting trail, perhaps even on game day. That way maybe some crucial time outs will be called when needed for proper time management. We lost the Indiana game last year because of such foolish inaction.

RPeterE wrote on February 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

Good article Loren - thank you. Summed up nicely. Between all the talent returning from excellent recruiting classes in past years, excellent new coaches and potential gems in the incoming freshman class who might contribute immediately, future of Illini football is definitely looking UP again.

PeoriaIllini wrote on February 16, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Good article as other's have said. Obviously with all things time will tell. I am always behind the Illini, and am consistently a positive commentor on these boards. However I tend to think that Defensively we need to improve and hopefully with the revamped staff we will see that improvement. Either way I will watch the games and cheer on the team.

MyTurn2Raze wrote on February 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

for the record, the Big Ten was the worst of the big 6 power conferences even after the bowl games according to the composite computer rankings on Massey and every top computer program that uses margin of victory. The Big Ten is bad.

MyTurn2Raze wrote on February 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

And, there is plenty of cause for panic when the one thing that has worked under Zook, the run first shotgun spread offensive scheme, is being completely overhauled with an inexperienced QB, losing the top lineman, and little success last year with blocking or running on 'traditional' type run plays.

blmillini wrote on February 16, 2010 at 2:02 pm

It is a good thing games aren't decided by the computer. The Big 10 proved they weren't as bad as some would like to suggest during bowl season.

As far as Illinois, I guess we will see. I'm excited to see what the changes bring.

CecilColeman wrote on February 16, 2010 at 5:02 pm

1) Per Jam - WHAT "Chicagoland recruiting combine"? Those schools hardly recruited anyone out of Chicagoland (heck-out of Illinois!) this year. The talent in this state is way, way, way sub-par! Check the rosters of Alabama, Texas, Florida....they don't recruit here, either.

2) New quarterback? No experience? In 1983 Jack Trudeau took over at QB without ANY experience in college football. Read your history books and check the results. Oh, and we lost at Mizzou and only had Five Home Games (out of 11).

topot wrote on February 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

It looks like a 9 win season.

You can write that down

topot wrote on February 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

It looks like a 9 win season.

You can write that down

topot wrote on February 16, 2010 at 6:02 pm

It looks like a 9 win season.

You can write that down

peterborich wrote on February 16, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Loren spends the entire past football season trashing Zook and the program, yet he now writes that are not as bas as they seem to be. What's even worse is that he is being praised for this piece of flip-flop garbage. Wow! I bet if the team qualifies for a bowl game next year, Loren will be writing that he never doubted Zook and that he always knew the last two years were just a fluke

IlliniHimey wrote on February 16, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Bigger, faster, stronger.

Bigger, faster, stronger.

Bigger, faster, stronger.

I did not realize it was August 1, 2010 already?

In the words of Beavis and Butthead, "Words.....words..........words........words..........words."