Everywhere I go in my travels to meet and evaluate the best football players in the country, Illinois' staff has already been there. The Illini have to be among the top two or three schools in the nation in offering scholarships. They have offered more than anyone else in the Big Ten.
No doubt about it, coach Ron Zook and his staff have graduated from being Illinois recruiters to being national recruiters, which is the next step when you are successful.
Early reports indicate that Illinois and Ohio State coaches are popping up everywhere. The two conferences that seem to be dominating nationally are the ACC and the SEC. So the Big Ten must catch up.
Talent-wise, it is an average to below-average year in the Midwest. To remain competitive, Big Ten schools must expand their recruiting horizons beyond the Midwest and Illinois is doing that, especially in Florida and the Carolinas, which traditionally produce talented prospects.
Illinois has offered 6-5, 230-pound defensive end Sam Montgomery of Greenwood, S.C., 6-4, 211-pound safety Damario Jeffery of Columbia, S.C., 6-3, 190-pound defensive back Logan Heastie of Chesapeake, Va., 6-4, 185-pound defensive end Chris Bonds of Columbia, S.C., 6-3, 210-pound defensive back Devonte' Holloman of Charlotte, N.C., and 6-7, 275-pound offensive tackle Xavier Nixon of Fayetteville, N.C.
In my opinion, Nixon is the best offensive tackle in the country based on what I have seen. I saw him at the U.S. Army combine in San Antonio in January and again last week. His father is fighting in Afghanistan. He would be on my first All-America team right now if I had to pick it. He also has been offered by Notre Dame.
Montgomery, who has 30 offers, has emerged as a top 100 prospect. Bonds is the best player in South Carolina. Hollomon also has been offered by Notre Dame.
In Illinois, Morgan Park defensive end Craig Drummond and Glenbard West tackle Chris Watt likely will be named to participate in the 2009 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Watt is a national recruit, the only Illinois product to be offered by Notre Dame at the moment.
Another nominee who is coming on strong as more college coaches evaluate his film is Providence lineman Patrick Ward, whose father played at Hinsdale South and Illinois. ward has a great future because of his size and potential. He has great feet and projects to be a 320-pounder in college.
Richards' 6-8 Shaun Pratl, fresh from helping to lead his team to the Class 4A state basketball championship, is getting attention in football and basketball. He looks like a wide receiver playing at tight end. But he needs to get stronger if he opts to concentrate on football.
Leo linemen Lendell Buckner and Leon Hill, who have committed to Illinois, have indicated that they want to visit other schools. Illinois was the first school they saw and they committed right away. Leo coach Mike Holmes is an Illinois graduate.
The quarterback position in the Chicago area is very good. Critics wonder why Marian Central's Jon Budmayr and Glenbard North's Evan Watkins are rated ahead of Maine South's Charlie Goro, who was the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area selection last fall. Because Budmayr and Watkins have more offers at the moment.
In my view, Budmayr is the best athlete among the three. At 6-6, Watkins is a pro-style quarterback with good feet, good enough to run a spread offense but best equipped to run a pro-style offense.
Goro is a good all-around quaraterback, a Division I prospect, who runs Maine South's spread offense to perfection. He completed 70 percent of his passes in 2007. It is only a matter of time before colleges realize he is a big-time prospect.