Tate: Talent's heading south

Tate: Talent's heading south

CHAMPAIGN – Ron Zook caught some guff – even as he made perfect sense – with recent comments that the Southeastern Conference "at this time, it probably is" ahead of the Big Ten in football.

The Illini coach was asked the question and he answered honestly. It's not exactly a revelation. While it's a well-kept secret that Big Ten teams have an 8-6 edge on SEC teams during the last five years, it is vastly more significant that three SEC teams have won the last four national championships.

Face it, the SEC juggernauts, along with the likes of Florida State, Miami and Texas, to mention a few, are located in states overrun with big, swift high school talent. They can recruit by auto. Their fandoms are fervent as they raise the battle cry, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." The Alabamas, LSUs and Floridas should be superior forever. They can go a long way on in-state talent alone.

Not so Wisconsin. Or Minnesota. Or Indiana. Or Iowa. Or Wisconsin. Or, as the Big Ten brings in a 12th member, Nebraska. And while we're at it, the dwindling state of Michigan must divide its talent between two state schools. Every Big Ten member tries to expand its talent search into the sunshine states. All look south for speed.

Stars not aligning

For the UI, it is a trying period with Chicagoland athletes increasingly hard to attract, and old minefields like the D.C. area drying up. In arbitrarily jotting down the UI's top 19 defensive players, seven hail from D.C. So does QB-receiver Eddie McGee. But D.C. recruiter Mike Locksley is gone, and the Illini have no D.C. products in their freshman class and, for now, none on the way in 2011.

If Rivals.com is a good evaluator of talent, the UI landed only one (QB Chandler Whitmer) of the state's top-10 prospects in its freshman class, and it doesn't look a lot better for the upcoming in-state class.

The current talent search has nothing to do with the 2010 season, but mediocre ratings in recruiting contribute to an undeniable lack of buzz about the future of the program.

Ohio State and Nebraska have already landed four-star linemen from this state. Of 10 athletes providing verbal commitments to the Illini so far, Rivals gives none a four-star rating and only three with three-star ratings. Four of the prospects have no ratings whatsoever, including Wheaton Warrenville South QB Reilly O'Toole. That's not to say that Rivals is correct. There are always flaws in these evaluations. UI coaches may have better information. They may see an upside that Rivals doesn't.

But wouldn't you feel better in Ohio if you saw the Buckeyes already have eight four-star prospects, more than the other 10 current Big Ten members combined? At this juncture, neither Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana nor Illinois has a four-star commitment. For the record, Ohio State has 17 verbals (12 from the home state), and no other Big Ten member has more than 11. Defensive linemen are scarce – a serious problem for the Illini – and the Buckeyes already have five D-linemen on the way. What we see is an Ohio State program that is averaging more than 10 wins over the last 10 seasons, is favored this season, and is miles ahead of the Big Ten in 2011 recruiting.

Tough task

Following is an analysis of the UI squad that will be reporting soon.

In tabbing the "top 19" on defense, there are seven from D.C. and seven from Illinois. The home staters are undersized linemen Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan, DBs Terry Hawthorne, Miami Thomas and Supo Sanni, and linebackers Martez Wilson and Russell Ellington.

Of 11 likely starters on offense, four hail from Illinois, of which two are local products: running back Mikel Leshoure and fullback Zach Becker, the latter a part-time position for a team that often employs multiple receivers.

Of the five returning halfbacks on scholarship, Leshoure and Belleville's Jason Ford are the only two from the state. Of the top eight returning receivers and four incoming freshmen, the only in-staters are Chicagoans Chris James and Jack Ramsey, both projected as reserves.

Point is: From all indications, it appears the UI is obliged to build a football team via modest contributions from the Chicago area (tackle Jeff Allen and center Graham Pocic are the state's only offensive starters), from a few Ohioans who escape Buckeye clutches (watch sophomore guard Hugh Thornton), and from contacts in Florida and elsewhere in the south.

Long-range, it is difficult to paint a pretty picture. As for 2010, there is hope even as the Illini install new systems offensively and defensively. If they can survive the early shellings by Missouri, Ohio State and Penn State, they should compete favorably at home against Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. Fresno State is beatable. So is a Michigan team that finished in a 1-7 tailspin in each of the last two years, losing to Illinois 45-20 and 38-13.

But recruiting is the lifeblood, and Illinois is in a hunt-and-peck mode against 10-finger rivals. It's hard to survive that way but ... Iowa and Wisconsin are doing it, Boise State could make a run for the national title by beating Virginia Tech and Oregon State in September, and Nebraska has crossed multiple boundaries for decades, and has already landed seven four-star prospects for 2011.

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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blmillini wrote on July 27, 2010 at 12:07 am

It is what mediocrity breeds. The commitment is not there from the University and the DIA. The only sport that consistently succeeds is basketball and that is because we are in a state that is so rich in talent that anyone could succeed in that sport. Until we start demanding excellence, we will continue to be mediocre at best.

TotalIlliniFan wrote on July 27, 2010 at 7:07 am

Where does it start? Big donors to the University must expect consistent greatness in FB and BB just like in academics. The Trustees and President need to feel heat and then implement. I am not sure this is possible.

WhoSays wrote on July 27, 2010 at 7:07 am

The Illini wont win a big ten title in the next 20 years. No one thinks they are going to be good and that is because most of us are used to seeing them fall apart year after year.

Also Loren Tate should retire!

kzimmer001 wrote on July 27, 2010 at 8:07 am

No one is talking about going 12-0 here, but there is no reason this program cannot be bowl eligible almost every year, and maybe get a break through with some 3 star late bloomers every so often.

It's not all gloom and doom -- hire the right head coach, and things can fall into place.

tb wrote on July 27, 2010 at 9:07 am

Iowa never has a 5 star recruit and only has a 4 star once in awhile. Don't tell us it can't happen. We never put out enough money to a track or keep a great coach. A great coach is the whole ball game. Ann Arbor,MI. and Columbus,oh are old towns. Really not much different than Champaign. Coaching, tradition,back bone. We have never wanted it enough to not tolerate failure. You have to put football athletes on the 5 year plan. Everyone redshirts as a freshmen adds 30lbs of muscle and speed and coaching. Then plays 4 years. Its not easy but it can be done.

Groundhogday wrote on July 27, 2010 at 10:07 am

tb, you are mistaken about Iowa. It is a great myth that Iowa wins with 2-star recruits. Most of their top players last year were 4-5 star recruits, including their best OL and DL (the strength of that team). They recruited very well at the end of Turner's tenure and Zook's first year. Since then they have not done as well (prior to this past year). We will probably see the results on the field this year: an Iowa team that disappoints.

MyTurn2Raze wrote on July 27, 2010 at 2:07 pm

the worst thing is the players from ESL headed to Kentucky. It's one thing for the top programs in the country to take the top players. That is depressing. The jump off a ledge angle is mediocre programs taking the next level of players. Illinois needs that next level to stay competitive enough to eventually compete at the top. With schools like Kentucky raiding the Illinois top 25 player list, Illinois will struggle to win against the bottom of the Big Ten. This just looks dreadful. The athletic department screwed up in looking at the long term costs of keeping Zook. There are 5-6 years minimum of poor play ahead for the program. GAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

cmhawks99 wrote on July 27, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Untrue on all accounts for Iowa. They have routinely recruited a hodge-podge of guys from walk-ons to 4 stars. Iowa has 36 kids currently on NFL rosters (top 16 or 17 in the country) and 15 plus are walk-ons and 2-stars. Lat year they lost 2-4*stars, but have many more on this years team starting. But in reality they’ve always identified talent at every level better than most. They’ve actually recruited better in recent years with a small dip around 2006 “maybe” and maybe 2008! In 2007 they had Chandler and Elgin drafted as 2 stars, 2008 it was Godfrey, 2009 it was Meyers, Fletcher and Greene, and last year, Spievey. They are several more on the team now. Iowa has stellar talent and they find it everyone at every rating level. Since 2001 they have had 19*2 stars drafted and several others made the league as FA’s. That’s some myth.


cmhawks99 wrote on July 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

One other thing worth noting, although it is indeed true that the population is shifting a tick. It’s a tad over done. It’s a historical fact that populations shift towards the south & west, but there is only so far they can go. It’s also historical that they shift towards metropolitan areas and Chi-town, LA, New York aren’t going anywhere soon.

Ultimately when you break it down, it’s true that Illinois, PA, New Jersey and Michigan (slightly) are down from the previous 10-year period at producing NFL talent. But Ohio is in fact up, as is Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, etc………


docjgw wrote on July 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Groundhogday, it is you who is mistaken. According to Scout recruiting summaries, for the last several years Iowa has had mostly 2 and 3 star recruits with a few 4 stars and no 5 stars. We have had many 4 stars and 3 stars, yet I think it is safe to say that Iowa football is much better than Illinois fotball (and that is hard for me to accept as a diehard Illini fan!) and probably will be for years to come. I think the difference is coaching. Ferentz and his assistants know how to get the most out of their players. With our new coordinators, maybe things will be different this year, but I doubt it as long as we have the same head coach.

tb wrote on July 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Chad thanks for the facts I already knew this because Iowa has one of our kids. He came home after his red shirt year telling his friends how much he loved Iowa. Both the school, the coaches and the football team. By the way he looks like a man wow. 6'5 235lbs. We are proud of him. Every one that saw him play knew he could play at any level except Illinois. He was a beast here and will be at Iowa before he is done. Thats when I knew Iowa really could evaluate talent and Illinois didn't really have a clue.

cmhawks99 wrote on July 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

No problem TB,

And if you are talking about DG, I was real excited when Iowa signed him. He looks to me like he can play about 4 positions. That’s kind of Iowa’s approach, find athletes, that project at several positions and see where they fit in. The number one key being attitude, focus & effort. Keep in mind we have had our failings, namely a rogue element several years’ back, when I think they mistakenly went after a higher profile kid. But as you break down Iowa’s team, even when we struggled in 2006/2007 there was ample talent. What we lacked was a lousy team dichotomy and some QB issues. If you follow the Pro day and combines at all, you’ll note Iowa has a lot of speed and athleticism as well. The myth being that Iowa & the Big 10 in general are slow. It’s just not true.


myattitude wrote on July 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I believe that until Illinois hires the right coach in FB and BB (I am not a Weber fan) and then makes the monetary effort to keep them, the programs are doomed to be so-so or worse. They can't afford a good coach upfront due to the high costs and don't go after the good up and coming coaches. We keep taking retreads.

IlliniOllie wrote on July 27, 2010 at 7:07 pm

And yet, one thing is consistent across bad recruiting, bad coaching, and bad seasons... Ron "Mr. 81-126-2" Guenther.

Until Ron Guenther is fired and replaced with an AD who is good at *all parts* of his job (especially running the financially most important sport), Illinois football - and Illinois sports in general - will continue to wallow in mediocrity.

cmhawks99 wrote on July 27, 2010 at 8:07 pm

As a major Big 10 fan I like Bruce Weber and think he is an above average coach and developer of talent. As far as football coaches go, I used to try to give the Zooker the benefit of the doubt, but even though he signed some high “ranking” classes. I’m not really sure he had that good of an eye for actual talent, and he certainly couldn’t get them to perform on a consistent basis. You don’t need a flashy coach, you need someone with substance, who will lay the groundwork and knows what he is looking for. Starz mean little. Iowa never have classes higher than 30th yet they have 36 NFLers on camp rosters.


Todd wrote on July 28, 2010 at 9:07 am

We'd all like to see more resources put towards sports, but in a state that is $13 billion in the red and cutting funding to all state entities, don't hold your breath for a the funds to hire an elite coach to a long-term contract. I don't think it's a lack of desire by the university's administration, but a practical limitation on what they can actually do. Until the state's budget problems subside (and the next AD is hired), I think you're stuck with what you've got.

tb wrote on July 28, 2010 at 10:07 am

Todd no state was hit harder than Michigan. For that matter Ohio too. No one gripes in those states when they pay a lot for football. 2 of the highest paid coaches in the country. They love football. I do too. I just wish the U of I did. I'm Not sure If we sold out every game if would be that bad of an investment.

IlliniOllie wrote on July 28, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Let's hope that our next AD can hire our own version of Barry Alvarez - a coach who can revive a moribund football program.