Putting an end to the myth of "Ron Zook, Ace Recruiter"
It being late spring/early summer, most college football sites are looking for ways to kill time in this traditionally dead period for writers following the sport. More than a few Big Ten blogs have taken to writing previews about conference opponents and I've started to pick up on a common thread when it comes to Illinois Fighting Illini previews. For whatever reasons, people are still clinging to the idea that Ron Zook was/is some sort of mythical recruiter.
And you know what? That's just not true.
Keep in mind, I'm not saying that notion was always false. After all, the majority of players on the Florida Gators 2006 National Championship squad were recruits from the ever-so-brief Ron Zook era. But recruiting at Florida is an entirely different beast than recruiting at a school that isn't an established powerhouse and not located in a traditional talent hotbed.
Which brings us to his classes at Illinois. Yes, his recruiting classes started off incredibly strong. I don't know what he was pitching to kids when his team was in the gutter the first few seasons, but the 2006 class ranked 30th in the nation and 4th in the Big Ten. It was full of future Illini stars like Jeff Cumberland (4 stars), Juice Williams (4 stars), Vontae Davis (3 stars), Michael Hoomanawanui (3 stars), and Jon Asamoah (2 stars). And no true Illini fan could ever forget the immaculate 2007 class that ranked 20th in the nation, 3rd in the conference, and produced Arrelious Benn (5 stars) and Martez Wilson (5 stars).
Things would remain fine on the recruiting trail in 2008, helped no doubt by the surprise Rose Bowl campaign of 2007. The recruiting class ranked 23rd nationally and 4th in the conference. It also produced key Illini Graham Pocic (4 stars), Corey Liuget (4 stars), Mikel LeShoure (3 stars), Whitney Mercilus (3 stars), and Tavon Wilson (3 stars). But a disturbing trend started to develop. Only half of the top six recruits wound up not transferring to another program. So while Zook technically landed that great class, a solid chunk of the top talent wound up at other universities.
2009 continued that trend. The class ranked 35th nationally and 5th in the conference, numbers that were still respectable but less impressive. Of the 22 players that signed LOI, seven were 4 star prospects. Only four of those seven would stay with the program (Michael Buchanan, Nathan Scheelhaase, Justin Green, and Terry Hawthorne). So once again, half of the top talent abandoned ship. But yeah, still doing just fine.
That is until 2010's class, when the wheels officially started falling off the Ron Zook bandwagon. Illinois' class ranked 70th in the nation (Toledo ranked 68th) and 8th in the conference. The only 4 star prospect in the class was Chandler Whitmer, who is now competing to be a backup at UConn. There was talent in the 3 stars (Jonathan Brown, Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines, and Evan Wilson). And yeah, his final class ranked 42nd nationally and 7th in the conference. But once again the only 4 star recruit, Dondi Kirby, never suited up in orange and blue which changes things rather greatly.
Ron Zook was at one time an amazing recruiter. But a large number of those top recruits wound up playing for other programs despite signing LOI at Illinois. Tim Beckman managed recruiting classes in the 60s nationally and at the top of the Mid-American Conference both years he ran the show. And despite a poor 2012 class at Illinois (mostly as a result of not being a part of the Illinois program until the last two months of the recruiting season), the 2013 class is off to no worse of a start than the last two seasons of the Ron Zook regime. The future looks better every day.
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