Illinois' stunning victory over top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday should pay rich dividends to coach Ron Zook's program in the future. It sets up the Illini as the team to beat next year in the recruiting wars in the Chicago area and the Midwest.
This year's recruiting is almost done and Notre Dame dominated in the Chicago, landing the top three recruits--Mount Carmel's Steve Filer, Marian Central's Sean Cwynar and St. Rita's Darius Fleming. Most uncommitted prospects have positioned themselves, having been recruited for the last 10 months.
But Illinois should be the dominant team next year. The Illini will have bragging rights to use as a recruiting tool through June when most scholarship offers are accepted.
Zook and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley are great recruiters. Curt Mallory is good, too. Zook is one of the top 10 head coaches in the country when it comes to closing on a blue-chip prospect. And Locksley is one of the top 10 assistant coaches. Now they have a winning program to recruit for.
But the upshot of Illinois' successful season is Locksley figures to be considered for a head coaching position elsewhere. If anyone can take credit for turning the Illini program around, it is Locksley. He has to zoom to the top of the list of minority coaches to be considered for a head coaching position along with John Blake of North Carolina.
Look for Illinois to target the Chicago area, Maryland and Florida to find top prospects in the class of 2009. Locksley brings in players like Regus Benn from his association with the Washington, D.C., area and the East. Zook has a good knowledge of Florida from his days as Florida's head coach.
Chicago area players who likely will be targeted include defensive end Craig Drummond of Morgan Park, defensive lineman Lindell Buckner of Leo, quarterbacks Charlie Goro of Maine South and Evan Watkins of Glenbard North, running backs Mike Trumpy of Wheaton North and Dominique Bell of Morgan Park and tackle Chris Watt of Glenbard West, who already has been offered by Northwestern.
Does this mean Illinois is emerging as a serious contender for the Big Ten championship?
Whoa, Nellie. It takes more than one year. People forget that former Illinois coach Ron Turner had an even better year in 2001 and took Illinois to the Sugar Bowl. He recruited well for a short period of time. And Mike White did it for a couple of years at Illinois and went to the Rose Bowl.
But to dethrone perennial powers Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, a team needs to be consistent in wins and recruiting. Remember, Iowa had three top 10 finishes in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and coach Kirk Ferentz was being touted for NFL jobs. But they weren't enough to overcome poor seasons in 2006 and 2007.
With Zook's personality and work ethic--if if Illinois is able to keep Locksley--there probably won't be anything stopping the Illini and we'll see major results in the class of 2009.