Unbeaten Illini getting looksLincoln-Way East's J.J. Robertson (1) reels in a 50-yard pass over Homewood-Flossmoor's Sheldon Jones (6) to help set up the Griffins' first touchdown during their football game in Flossmoor Friday, September 16, 2011. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 27, 2011 5:59PM
It’s obvious that major-college football programs can’t prosper on the field without recruiting successfully. But the reverse is just as true.
That’s the take of CBS College Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, at least in Illinois’ case. The Illini are off to their first 4-0 start in 60 years, a stretch that includes a victory over a ranked Arizona State team that makes coach Ron Zook’s program more attractive to top-level high school players.
“They’ve laid the groundwork,” Lemming said. “It was just a matter of doing well on the field.”
Illinois targeted the Chicago area last year for a class that included Sun-Times Player of the Year Reilly O’Toole, Wheaton Warrenville South’s standout quarterback, and Joliet Catholic running back Josh Ferguson. This year, Zook has commitments from Lincoln-Way East receiver J.J. Robertson and Mount Carmel defensive lineman Vontrell Williams, and there could be more to come.
“Nathan Scheelhaase has really helped them,” Lemming said of the Illini quarterback. “Having him there, a lot of receivers are starting to look there.”
Among local players on Illinois’ wish list are Simeon offensive lineman Jordan Diamond, who was on campus for a game earlier this season, and Lake Forest Academy defensive lineman Faith Ekakitie, who’s expected to be on hand for Saturday’s homecoming clash with Northwestern. Also on the Illini’s radar is Vincent Valentine, a 6-4, 315-pound defensive tackle from Edwardsville.
Illinois also has its sights set on some players from further afield, including prospects such as offensive lineman Dan Isidora (6-3, 330) from Cypress Bay High in Weston, Fla., and defensive tackle Teko Powell (6-3, 258) from Norland High in Miami.
And there are some players who have already given oral commitments elsewhere who might take a look at Illinois anyway. That group includes Powell’s prep teammate Ereck Flowers, a 6-6, 305-pound offensive lineman committed to Miami, and quarterback Cyler Miles from Mullen High in Denver, who gave a commitment to Washington.
Lemming gives some of the credit for the uptick in Illinois’ recruiting to assistant head coach/offensive line coach Joe Gilbert. “When he got to Illinois [in 2009], the evaluating really picked up,” Lemming said.