Signing-day haul to put Illini football in strong position
By Herb Gould Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org
Future results on the field will be the truest measure, but hands-on athletic director Ron Guenther’s ‘‘Great Football Experiment’’ keeps showing positive signs at Illinois.
Building on their Texas Bowl romp over favored Baylor in their first bowl trip in three years, the Illini will welcome a very promising recruiting class to Champaign today.
On the brink of being dismissed a year ago, coach Ron Zook seems poised to take another positive stride in the fall if Illinois can plug a few defensive gaps.
‘‘I really like this class,’’ said Jeff Johnson, who covers Illinois recruiting for Rivals.com. ‘‘Last year there was so much going on, they kind of reached on some kids. But when you put that class together with this class, they pretty much filled in all the holes.’’
The Illini, who are expected to sign 28 players, are all over the board in the rankings. Rivals has Illinois 41st nationally and sixth in the Big Ten. CBS Sports ranks the Illini 13th in the nation and second to Ohio State in the Big Ten, even though one of its top analysts, Tom Lemming, expects them to end up in the middle of the conference pack.
The key, of course, will be whether Zook and his revamped staff secured the ingredients they need.
There’s only one four-star recruit in this class, and that is Dondi Kirby, a safety/outside linebacker prospect from Monroeville, Pa. But if Rivals.com doesn’t list Wheaton Warrenville South quarterback Reilly O’Toole as a four-star recruit, he might be the highest-ranked three-star recruit in the nation.
Either way, the emphasis on quality three-star prospects over high-risk, high-reward four-star athletes is a sign of the direction the Illini are taking under Guenther. Tired of the high attrition rate among recent classes, Guenther has urged Zook and his staff to bring in more stable athletes.
‘‘It looks like they’re going for more quality kids, kids that are smart football players,’’ Lemming said. ‘‘All things considered, it’s a pretty good class.’’
Don’t be too quick to assume O’Toole will redshirt this fall. Although Nathan Scheelhaase made a splashy freshman debut, O’Toole, who has the better arm, might see some action in a backup role, taking some snaps as a counterpoint to Scheelhaase.
‘‘He has the arm strength to go downfield,’’ one insider said, pointing out that offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm have played two quarterbacks at Louisville and Arkansas. ‘‘Reilly makes all the throws. He can throw the 20- to 25-yard out route Nathan cannot make consistently. And he’s a leader, too.’’
Another incoming freshman who will have an immediate-impact opportunity is Donovonn Young, a 5-11, 215-pound running back from suburban Houston, who could spell Jason Ford, the likely successor to Mikel Leshoure. After missing his junior season with a broken foot, Young ran for 2,332 yards and 35 touchdowns last fall.
Josh Ferguson, a 5-8, 170-pound running back from Joliet Catholic, also will have a shot to prove himself.
Other potential early-impact recruits are Kirby, who’s apparently healthy after missing his senior season with a major knee injury, and Henry Dickinson, an outside linebacker.
‘‘Kirby’s [high school] coach says he’s ready to go,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘If that’s true, I’d expect he’s going to get on the field very quickly. And [Illinois coaches] think they’ve found a player in Dickinson, a defensive player of the year in Memphis.’’
This signing day seems to be another indicator Illinois has a chance to keep moving forward.