It's natural to be skeptical about UI football recruiting when (1) Chicago is forever a tough nut to crack and (2) the Illini are currently trailing other Big Ten schools in 2012 numbers.
This state doesn't produce many four-star prospects, and Iowa has picked off three of them in suburbanites Ryan Ward, Jaleel Johnson and Maurice Fleming. Resurgent Michigan already has 20 commitments, including nine with ESPN four-star ratings. The UI has but six announced verbals, none with four-star ratings and only one from the state, receiver Jason Robertson of Lincoln-Way East.
At first glance, it doesn't look good. But Joe Gilbert, recruiting coordinator for Ron Zook, says not to worry. He reminds that early commits aren't always the best. And Gilbert might have another recruiting point: The outcome is often different than it originally appears.
As example, most of us had no idea what to expect from the UI's upcoming sophomore class. Fifteen of the 21 scholarships went to out-of-staters. Most were from the South. The UI's highest ranked prospect in 2010 was Downers Grove QB Chandler Whitmer, an obvious mistake by the evaluators. He left early.
Based on what we saw this past spring, this class is offering far more hits than misses, a greater percentage of producers than the UI is accustomed to. For me, this class is the reason Illinois will be better than the summer magazines predict. And that's because all those southerners, about whom we knew little, are better than we had reason to believe ... fullback Jay Prosch, tight end Evan Wilson, linebackers Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and Brandon Denmark. This class now provides the nucleus for Paul Petrino's receiving corps. In the prominent category I count 12 young second-year squadmen from Florida (4), Georgia (2), Louisiana (2), Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia and Tennessee.
This is a new approach for the UI. And it may develop that "unknowns" from the South are better risks than "knowns" from Chicagoland. At this juncture, the only Illinoisans in that class with the likelihood of making an impact in 2011 are reserve defensive tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe — the UI is frightfully thin there — and offensive tackle alternate Mike Heitz (arriving at 260, he is now 6-6 and 298). As for backup QB, it remains to be seen how Mount Prospect sophomore Miles Osei stacks up with incoming plebe Reilly O'Toole.
Point is, before concluding anything about 2012 recruiting, you are advised to wait until they hit the field. But we must admit: The Illini would look awfully good with Michigan's 20-man list.
Robert Potts, retired Arkansas State chancellor, offers the same advice for the University of North Dakota that prevailed at the UI relative to the Native American controversy. Arkansas State changed its nickname from Indians to Red Wolves. North Dakota is bucking NCAA demands in an attempt to retain Fighting Sioux.
It is a losing battle because both NCAA and conference do-gooders have the power to penalize UND in terms of schedule limitations that would hurt the athletic program long-term. Nor will the NCAA be influenced by the intrusion of Dakota's state legislators.
"If the university expects to build a first-rate program in all its sports, it can't do it very well if it's treated as a pariah by a lot of other Division I programs and it can't host NCAA events," Potts said. "The NCAA is just too big an animal to thumb your nose at and expect to be a participant in its programs and so forth."
Emotions are powerful, but there comes a time when the facts must be faced. The UI Board of Trustees was heavily criticized for appeasing the minority, but there was no other realistic choice. Meanwhile, the 3-in-1 music remains, providing halftime opportunities for Chief Illiniwek supporters to relive history. Look for anti-Chiefers to approach the new Marching Illini band leader in that regard.
$56 million question
Why does White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen keep shoving Adam Dunn into the cleanup spot?
Hasn't this strategy reached the point of no return. Don't tell me the Sox can't locate a better designated hitter. Check Sunday's full major league list and, at .163, Dunn is at the absolute bottom.
Just imagine where the Sox would be if they had picked off Lance Berkman instead. They'd certainly be over .500. Cardinal fans grimaced when Berkman came aboard, pointing to his weak numbers with the Yankees ... and he's healthy now and leading the National League in home runs (27). Not only that, he can run and play acceptable defense. Sox fans rejoiced with the acquisition of Dunn, and they have a guy who is demonstrating daily that he can't hit southpaws, can't hit a fast ball over 93 mph, is helpless against a changeup, and is apparently in the lineup simply because his four-year, $56 million contract demands it.
The least they can do, if they can't make a deal with the Cubs for Alfonso Soriano (that's a joke), is move him down in the lineup. It is a shame to have Paul Konerko reaching base consistently, only to be followed by Mr. Strikeout.
— Kendall Gill deserves plaudits for remaining a supporter of Cunningham Homes for more than 20 years, his golf outing bringing between $20,000 and $30,000 annually. Said Gill last week: "For me, it's seeing kids who are now adults and how much Cunningham helped them. That's my satisfaction."
— Sporting News basketball guru Mike DeCourcy said UI sophomore Meyers Leonard "nearly rescued the USA from a big deficit against Russia" in the recent U19 World Championships. The USA was outscored 36-0 on treys in losing 79-74. Leonard's last three games in Latvia provided the first signs that he might be maturing into the task ahead ... and it is a huge task.
— Gilbert, in assessing his offensive line, says he doesn't expect junior tackle Corey Lewis to be ready before late September or early October. That'll give Illini redshirts Simon Czijanovic and Michael Heitz valuable experience as they alternate opposite senior Jeff Allen in the non-conference games.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org