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Zook makes passion play

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Last August, when Illinois was coming off back-to-back losing seasons and Ron Zook was on everybody’s hot seat, athletic director Ron Guenther offered some insight into why Illinois was unable to build on its 2007 Rose Bowl season.

‘‘I felt we made a mistake where we recruited five stars and four stars but missed some football players,’’ Guenther said. ‘‘It’s about getting football players — people that have a passion to play at Illinois and play for Coach Zook.’’

In introducing his 27-player recruiting class Wednesday, Zook insisted that always has been his philosophy.

‘‘I believe exactly what Coach Guenther said,’’ Zook said. ‘‘I don’t pay any attention to stars. It’s always been our philosophy to try to get guys who fit our system. It’s just, ‘Can this guy help us reach our goals? Is he going to graduate? And character.’ Those are the three things we look at.’’

Whether there has been a change in philosophy, and whether Guenther interceded, as some sources have suggested, this class looks like it addresses the AD’s concerns.

Illinois landed only one four-star recruit, Dondi Kirby, a defensive back/outside linebacker prospect from Western Pennsylvania. But Reilly O’Toole, the 6-4, 215-pound quarterback from Wheaton Warrenville South who’s Illinois’ most important recruit, might be the highest three-star in the nation.

It adds up to a class that won’t grab as much attention as some of Zook’s past efforts, but one that addresses Guenther’s concerns — and might be better suited for success.

This Illinois class is all over the board in the eyes of experts.’s MaxPreps lists it 13th in the nation and second in the Big Ten. has the Illini 41st and eighth, which makes more sense.

Either way, what stands out is the number of recruits who have a chance to make early, lasting impacts.

O’Toole, who heads up a promising group of eight players from Illinois, isn’t likely to unseat elusive Nathan Scheelhaase, who made a great freshman debut. But he could find a role as a counterpoint to Scheelhaase. O’Toole has the strong arm well-suited to the aggressive downfield passing game offensive coordinator Paul Petrino likes.

One key to this class will be whether Kirby, who’s apparently healthy after missing his senior season with a major knee injury, and Donovonn Young, a running back from Katy, Texas, who ran for 2,332 yards and 35 touchdowns last fall after missing his junior season with a broken foot, are ready to deal with the physical rigors of Big Ten play.

The Illini might have landed another sleeper in Henry Dickinson, an outside linebacker from Memphis. And Zook went out of his way to praise Josh Ferguson, a 5-10, 180-pound running back from Joliet Catholic.

With Mikel Leshoure skipping his senior year to turn pro, Young and Ferguson figure to have the opportunity to contribute at running back behind key returnee Jason Ford. Some analysts see Ferguson as better suited to a receiver role, though.

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