In Dixieland, I'll make my stand ...
RANTOUL — Where do they find these guys?
Mark down Ralph Cooper as the latest southern athlete upgrading his unknown status on the Illini practice field. In two years, Zook's staff has performed a naked reverse and given scholarships to 22 players from the South, many of them considered marginal by prep analysts.
For those who doubted this strategy, for those who decry the UI's inability to win Chicago, these speedy southerners are popping up everywhere on the UI field. This is a must because, as SuperPrep reports on a continuing trend, of seven Chicagoland seniors picked in the magazine's Midwest top 50, six have either declared elsewhere or have dropped the UI.
Meanwhile, in Rantoul, Florida sophomores Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford sparkled with catches Sunday. They look like the real deal. So does lanky Arkansas sophomore Spencer Harris, who had a spectacular practice Monday. Fullback Jay Prosch and tight end Evan Wilson proved themselves a year ago. And Texas freshman Donovonn Young needs only normal improvement to be on the same track as Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and Mikel Leshoure.
No, the Dixie contingent isn't getting much done for the offensive line. That's OK. Illinois appears set there for years. And no, with the exception of Florida defensive tackle Akeem Spence, they haven't added much to the UI's most vulnerable sector. But they're making an impact at the skill positions, and relieving concerns about the status of Illini linebacking as Vic Koenning's crew goes forward without new Saint Martez Wilson.
Consider: Six players have headed the UI depth chart at the two inside backers in the last two weeks (yes, it is changing), and they hail from South Carolina, Tennessee (two), Maryland, Louisiana and Florida. It seems like just yesterday we were following the exploits of Decatur's Brit Miller and Champaign's J Leman at those positions.
Better than anticipated
With UI defensive leader Ian Thomas sitting out the weekend scrimmage (sore shoulder), the 230-pound Cooper stepped in at middle linebacker and quickly demonstrated why he is advanced beyond the three-star prep designations given by Rivals and Scout. Another rookie, Henry Dickinson (6-4, 215 from Memphis), is showing promise at that position.
These are quality recruits, and their emergence is something of a routine occurrence, Zook's picks often turning out better than projected.
Last year it was Jonathan Brown, a zoned-in hitter from Memphis. He garnered 31 tackles as a freshman reserve. Fans will see a lot of his No. 45 this season.
Cooper is already No. 2 at MLB, presumably the heir apparent when Thomas graduates or immediately if Thomas' shoulder acts up. From all indications, Cooper is a mauler and a brawler. He is to defense what Young is to offense ... a rookie with downhill attacking traits.
Said Thomas of his young teammates:
"Cooper is passionate and makes plays. He's a little more mean, a little more of a hitter than Brown. Brown plays the pass better and is more of a ballhawk."
Ron West, who coaches the outside backers, gets much of the credit for Cooper. West worked with Dan Disch in the early recruitment, before Koenning replaced Disch. West is a Clemson graduate with 10 years as an assistant there, and knows the coaches in the South Carolina territory. They helped him, and he used the early-committed Zeph Grimes, a freshman defensive back from Bamberg, S.C., to further influence Cooper. Said West on Monday:
"Ralph is instinctive, a 4.0 student who works every day. If he had been an inch taller we would have had to battle everyone in the Southeastern Conference for him."
As it turned out, the Illini battled some ACC teams and beat out Georgia Tech.
Cooper says he is even 6-feet, which evidently isn't the SEC's preferred height for a middle backer. Are we to presume that if he was 6-3 he'd have had more than the 274 tackles garnered the last two years at Fairfield Central, where he was South Carolina's leading tackler? Illini historians might remind that Darrick Brownlow, a three-time AP All-Big Ten linebacker in 1988-90, was generously listed at 5-11. Dana Howard, who won the Butkus Award, was barely 6-0.
These are just numbers. Like the prep rankings, they don't mean a great deal. It's football. If you're tough enough, you're good enough.
Koenning is the first to acknowledge a whopping difference between the UI's first and second defensive units. This was apparent again Sunday. Keeping the front seven healthy is critical, so each practice day without an injury draws a sigh of relief.
The UI's most prominent non-league opponent, Arizona State, has already hit some serious bumps. Before losing crack outside linebacker Brandon Magee to an Achilles injury last weekend, the Sun Devils saw 11-game QB starter Steven Threet retire due to concussions, star cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson hit with spring ACL injuries, halfback Deantre Lewis (909 yards running and receiving as a freshman) victimized by a random shooting, and two-year defensive end starter James Brooks leave the team.
It is striking to me that Illinois would be downgraded so dramatically by the loss of three juniors to the NFL while Arizona State is rated so high in the face of so many key setbacks.
Magee was called "our best defensive player last season" by coordinator Craig Bay even though Magee's runningmate, Vontaze Burfict, has the reputation as the nation's nastiest linebacker.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.