Head of the class: Already loaded at wide receiver, Illinois got even better there with the signing of Terry Hawthorne.
The 6-foot, 168-pound Parade All-American piled up 1,009 receiving yards and 28 touchdown catches as East St. Louis won the Class 7A state championship. Also an accomplished punt returner, Hawthorne is ranked the nation's 11th-best receiver by Scout.com and 12th by Tom Lemming.
Instant impact: Aaron Gress will be moving to safety from weak-side linebacker, where he led the College of the Sequoias (Calif.) with 39 tackles as a first-team all-conference selection. But the 6-foot, 205-pound Gress, who enrolled at Illinois in January and will participate in spring practice, could bring immediate help to a secondary that has concerns about the health of Donsay Hardeman, who underwent surgery in December for a herniated disc in his neck.
Worth the wait: From Oklahoma on down, there was a lot of interest in Big 12 country in Nathan Scheelhaase, whose father, Nate Creer, was the defensive MVP on Iowa's 1985 Big Ten champions. But the mobile quarterback from Kansas City, Mo., believes Illinois is the best place for him because he's comfortable with the people and system. Scheelhaase, one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks, will have to wait his turn, but he could flourish in Illinois' zone-read option offense.
Sleeper: Walt Aikens wasn't as heavily recruited as he might have been because his high school, Charlotte (N.C.) Harding, had a new coach and didn't get out highlight reels on its players. But the 6-1, 183-pound Aikens turned a lot of heads in the fall, when he was named player of the year by the Charlotte Observer. A quarterback in high school, the athletic Aikens projects as a defensive back in college. He chose Illinois over Clemson and Louisville.
Fast facts: Running back Bud Golden and wide receiver Steve Hull, teammates at Cincinnati Sycamore, have dreamed of playing together in the Big Ten since they played in the same Pee-Wee backfield. ... Another Ohioan, defensive end Cornelius Carradine, played at Cincinnati Taft under coach Mike Martin, a wide receiver at Illinois (1980-82) and with the Bengals. ... Zook also continued to find talent in Chicago, signing a pair of four-star linemen from Leo: Lendell Buckner, a 6-3, 341-pound defensive tackle, and Leon Hill, a 6-4, 320-pound guard. ... Joelil Thrash, a cornerback from Washington Woodson, keeps Illinois' District of Columbia pipeline rolling. He also might have the most evocative name in this class.