The first Letter of Intent that Coach Zook pulled off the fax machine was that of offensive lineman Andrew Carter of Tallahassee, Fla.
Feb. 4, 2009
Good day Illini fans. The day of anticipation is finally here. Most of the coaches were already here this morning when I arrived at 5:30 a.m. I am going to do things a little bit differently this year to make this blog more interactive. If you have questions or comments, I am inviting you to email them to me during the course of the day at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2009 Signees: (in order of signing) Andrew Carter, Jake Feldmeyer, Justin Lattimore, Walter Aikens, Steve Hull, Nathan Scheelhaase, Bud Golden, Joelil Thrash, Akeem Spence, Tim Kynard, Hugh Thornton, Justin Green, Greg Fuller, Lendell Buckner, Leon Hill, Eric Watts, Terry Hawthorne, Tommie Hopkins, Michael Buchanan.
1:38 p.m. Coach Zook is talking to Michael right now and he just told him "You put the exclamation point on this class!" And let me state for the record THIS IS A GREAT CLASS! In a couple of minutes we will be posting a video of all of us around the football this morning in the heart of the excitement. But after that, stay tuned for Coach Zook's press conference which will be seen live and free on fightingillini.com.
1:34 p.m. Drum roll please ... We are officially finished for today with the receipt of the letter of intent from Homewood-Flossmoor's Michael Buchanan. The wait for the letter was causing some heart problems over here and I think Coach Zook sprinted to the fax machine when he heard it ring.
1:21 p.m. Just had a question about the spring game. We will begin spring practices the week of March 30 and the spring game will be on Saturday, April 25.
1:17 p.m. Well, Juice's class was cancelled so we will begin his chat now.
1:09 p.m. Let's do a recap of signing day so far. We have 11 skill players and eight linemen. Six four-star recruits, three players ranked in the top-10 at their position, five players ranked in top-10 in their state and the Parade Wide Receiver of the Year.
1:03 p.m. Question from Andrew in Paducah, Ky. "Have any of the players that have signed already decided to redshirt next year? Do the coaches already have an idea already about who might redshirt or is that a decision that comes later?" Answer: It is way too early to talk about redshirting. Coach Zook has the mentality that every player should come to campus expecting to play because you never know how a certain kids' development will go. If a player doesn't expect to get on the field, then have no chance of playing in that first year.
12:49 p.m. Just a program change for today. Juice picked up a 1 o'clock class the other day so we will begin his chat at 2 pm when he arrives from class. We already have 53 questions for him.
12:37 p.m. Mike from Chicago says, "Congrats on another great recruiting class. Where can I get my hands on one of those football helment chairs Coach Zook is sitting in?" I think the chairs have been discontinued. I know that is a frequent question we get when people come in the football offices. If anyone is looking to start a business, helmet chairs may be a good one to start.
12:27 p.m. Got a nice comment from David from Washington, "As someone who grew up in CU during the Blackman era, I have never seen an Illinois football coach over the past 30-40 years string together 3-4 recruiting classes of this caliber. In past years we would be thrilled to land ONE guy the caliber of Scheelhaase, Green, Hill, Buckner, Hawthorne or Golden. Yet some fans seem disappointed. Has Zook discussed expectations, how to set them high and yet still be pleased with the success we are having?" To answer his question, Coach is very pleased with this class. He feels it could be better than last year's and last year's class was great. You have to set expectations high for your team, Coach says all the time that "players have to raise their expectations to the level of the coaches" because we always have to be showing improvement.
12:08 p.m. When asked about why they chose Illinois, here were some answers: Walter Aikens said "I liked how Coach Zook talked about family because it made me feel that I would be in good hands even though I would be 11 hours away! He made me feel comfortable!" ... Bud Golden said "I chose Illinois because the coaches and players made me feel welcome to the Illini family the first day being on campus. Also one of my high school teammates is going to be with me. It's a good distance from my home, but not to far. This school is where i felt the most comfortable spending my next four years." ... Steve Hull said, "I chose Illinois because I feel like I will enjoy my college career the most there. It has a very nice campus, great facilities, great coaching staff, Big Ten Conference, and I will receive a great education as well."
12:05 p.m. Before signing day I was able to email some of our current signees and ask them some questions and I have some fun answers that may be of interest to our fans. For example, Andrew Carter was asked to give a funny recruiting story, "Coach Gilbert and I getting beat by Coach Disch and my mom on our new Illinois Tailgate toss game. The O-line failed to dominate."
12:01 p.m. LUNCH IS HERE!
11:56 a.m. Another question, "I see that there are some players on scout and rivals that have offers from us and are still undecided. Is there any chance of us getting any of them as a surprise?" There is a chance for one more today.
11:49 a.m. Make sure you check out the "Why Illinois?" video on the top of this page. It is a compilation of our current players talking about their recruiting process.
11:44 a.m. (somehow this got deleted) Got a pretty negative question from a "fan", but I really want to answer it. Here it goes, Bryant from Chicago: Ron Zook is considered one of the best recuiters in the country. My question is" that if this statment is true then why are we not seeing the big name recuits on the board." Answer: I completely disagree with Bryant's statement. And I would hope most of our loyal fans disagree as well. This is a great class that features six four-star kids, the No. 1 receiver in the country (by Parade Magazine) and a player who was committed to Ohio State just days ago. But the rule of thumb is that you can't please everyone.
11:09 a.m. "How much stock do you put into outside rankings like the ESPN 150 compared to internal scouting? Are there other factors like chemistry and how you feel a player will fit into the Illinois system that you feel are more important than the "expert" rankings?" Answer: Rankings are a way to start, but the coaches don't base their evaluation on a player on other people's opinions. The film on a player must go through the recruiting coach, the position coach, the coordinator and Coach Zook must all sign off on a kid before an offer is made. But secondly, you need to make sure that the kid is going to fit in with your current players and system. Coach always says you look at three things: a player can graduate from your University, help your program and have character.
10:50 a.m. East St. Louis is finally completed for the 2009 season for us, Tommie Hopkins is officially an Illini! Maybe Reggie can now work out after the online chat.
10:35 a.m. OK, this is an inside question, but it is worth answering, "Have you seen the new football press box and facilities impact our recruiting efforts?" Answer: Yes, now that all the renovations are done, we have been able to use the facilities quite a bit for recruiting. Not only because we can physically use the areas for recruiting dinners and meals, but the new weight room is a huge sell to kids. During our visits, we used the Colonnades Club for dinner, the big screen to show videos to the guys.
10:29 a.m. More questions, "Understanding that this whole LOI process is pretty dynamic, can the coaches contact a "B" recruit if an "A" recruit signs elsewhere?" Answer: Yes, that can happen, but again at this point in the game coaches pretty much know if they are going to have any last minute changes and have already been prepared for those possibilities. Again because of the limitations on scholarships, it also limits the number of LOI that can be sent out in advance, so you really need to plan well.
10:25 a.m. We officially have Terry Hawthorne's letter. I know that you saw it many other places first, but the papers had not come across the fax before now.
10:17 a.m. - I cannot stress enough that "The letter of intent has to be in our possession before anyone from the University can confirm or talk about a player."
10:11 a.m. David asks, "How much of a role do current players have in recruiting? Are they allowed to make contact with recruits? If so get Rejus on the horn." Answer: Yes, they are, and they do and that has been one of the reasons we have been successful. A lot of our signees credit the current Illini and their chemistry.
9:58 a.m. Arrelious Benn just came by to hang out.
9:50 a.m. Another question, "If a recruit signs a LOI and does not show up or enroll in school, how long is he committed to the University?" The LOI lasts for a year, but a coaching staff can release a kid.
9:46 a.m. Another question, "For next year, why don't you set up a live web video of the room so that we can see what is going on?" Answer: Would love to, but it would be a violation because if we talk about prospects that have not signed with us or signed somewhere else then we would get turned in.
9:38 a.m. Here is a question from Chris, "Can you talk about why it seems that we have a hard time getting some prospects into school when other places seem to get them in so easy? Also, it seems we have taken a few hits recently on kids that won't qualify academically to get into UIUC. It seems this might be avoided with better planning, but I have heard that there seems to be a lack of support staff for the football program because the AD/BOT won't provide it. Sounds like the coaches and existing support staff have too much to handle to be able to adequately prep for these kinds of things, and that they don't always get the support they need. Can you comment on that?" I will give you a brief summary of academics and recruiting, but really it is so complicated that we could spend days talking about it. Obviously, Illinois is a very difficult school to get in to and the admission standards have been growing. Because of that fact, of course, there will always be kids you can't get into school. You don't want to bring in kids who aren't going to be able to succeed academically because that will count against the NCAA's APR which affects scholarship numbers. The second part of that question on why do you begin recruiting a player is because the recruiting process begins so early in a players' high school career. Players' academics are ever changing and you wouldn't want to neglect a guy that has a chance to be a part of your program just on the off chance that maybe his grades or test scores won't be good enough.
9:32 a.m. Just posted a photo gallery above of some photos taken when we all arrived this morning.
9:30 a.m. Another question "How does the staff handle all the misinformation and hearsay on the internet these days? Do you guys see it, do you ignore it, do you just laugh at all of us who believe it?" Answer: The internet has made recruiting difficult for the coaches. Not just because of the information out there, but the increased number of people who call the recruits. The biggest thing I have heard from kids is that the phone calls from recruiting sites get very overwhelming. Also these recruiters are not always the most unbiased.
9:25 a.m. Eric Watts becomes the 16th signee today. We had the form earlier, but he forgot to sign his middle initial. The LOI requires that it be signed with a full name. Coach Disch can finally relax. So now its just Reggie that is pacing. But he has gotten many texts so he isn't worried.
9:22 a.m. Here is another good question, "What is the most unpredictable aspect of recruiting?" This is another topic we were just talking about. And it would be kids changing their minds. We had a situation this year where a kid committed to us on a Thursday night, but then changed over the weekend. The tough part is when you know there is a good relationship and everything sounds great when you are in front of the kid, but when you leave the home it changes.
9:17 a.m. Hopefully everyone is getting to watch the videos that are being posted on coachronzook.com. The website has also undergone a renovation over the past year or so, to be more video intensive. Again, we are having trouble with three of the guys' videos Aiken, Golden, Green. Officially, I am on Diet Coke number 3.
9:09 / 9:12 a.m. - The Leo boys are in (actually the Leo men are in!) Lendell Buckner came in at 9:09 and Leon Hill at 9:12 a.m. It's like having twins, one had to be first out! These are two great gets. I don't know if anyone has ever stood next to those two guys, but they are towers!
9:07 a.m. This is a great question, "Do any of the players stop by to see the action or is the "room off" limits? Also what do you coaches do to pass the time when there is a delay in those incoming faxes?" The room is wide open an on-limits to anything who wants to stop by. You will probably see in a video feature we will post at 2 pm that it is just mass chaos in the offices today. Donsay Hardeman came up a minute ago. He had just gotten done working out. During down time, Coach is pacing and making jokes about anything that comes to his mind. Reggie is trying to schedule a time to work out, but Zook won't let him. A lot of the coaches are watching film of juniors and passing those around for other coaches to view. They are working the phones and hanging out. Again we have a lot of food so there is snacking going on.
9:05 a.m. ESPN just listed Coach Zook as the "Best Closer in the Big Ten."
9:02 a.m. "Why are there so few spring enrollees this year (only the 1 and he's a juco)?" Spring enrollees kind of come in phases. For a freshman to enroll early it takes years of planning and getting credits done ahead of time. So we just didn't recruit a lot of guys this year who were in position to do that.
8:59 a.m. Here is another question, "Are there cases where the coaches get a LOI faxed before the athlete has a press conference? And if so, do you hold off on reporting it until he has his `big moment'?" Yes, in most cases they are sending it in before they do any kind of ceremony or media availability at their school. The coaches can't wait that long to see if they got the kid. It would give them heart failure. If they ask us not to report it, we will. Again most of the time, people already know they are potentially coming to our school.
8:52 a.m. Trent Chesnut, our equipment manager, just came upstairs cause he read in the blog that we had breakfast casserole. But that also made me think of something off topic that I wanted to mention. We found out the other day that Chris Norwell is doing really well with his chemo and radiation. Turns out his father's insurance is going to cover him for another year, which is great for them. There is a fundraiser coming up at Anderson High School and we have had so many former Illini offer to help out in anyway. I called Dave Diehl to let him know about C-No's condition and less than a month later, he shipped a football with his and Eli Manning's autograph. That item along with alot of other stuff will be auctioned off at the fundraiser.
8:50 a.m. This is a funny question and I had to post it, "Has a recruit faxed his LOI to the wrong school before? For example, a recruit intended to fax to Illinois - but whoops - faxed it to Ohio State? And had to re-fax to Illinois to be official." Answer: I am sure it has happened, but I don't think I have ever seen it happen.
8:44 a.m. Got another really good question, "With the shakeup in the staff this off season are the new assistant coaches (Gilbert, Gilmore and Schultz) involved much in the activities this morning?" When you come in late in the process it is nearly impossible to get recruits on your own just because of timing. However, with the offensive linemen we have on the board Joe Gilbert has met with all of them and established a great bond quickly. Same with Keith Gilmore, although he was actually given a defensive line recruit to work on and hopefully we will be hearing from him later today. Mike Schultz also hit the road and was able to meet with guys like Scheelhaase, Green and most the offensive guys. I think most people know this, but you can have seven coaches on the road at a time.
8:32 a.m. Greg Fuller is in the house. Coach Mitchell claims he is probably the first true fullback we have recruited here. He was so excited about signing that he called the coaches yesterday to see if he could do it then. Top-10 fullback in the country.
8:27 a.m. OK guys, it is official Justin Green from Louisville, Ky. is officially an Illini. I think fans started hearing about him early this week. But this would be one of those late add guys that fans always wonder if we will get. He is the No. 1 player in the state of Kentucky and a top-100 recruit.
8:24 a.m. One email asked that I remind everyone about recruits already on campus. So I will do that now. This year, we only have one, Aaron Gress a junior college guy from California. He went to the College of the Sequoias.
8:21 a.m I have gotten a couple of questions today about players that haven't signed here yet and/or may not sign with us. And I just want to remind everyone that myself and other members of the staff can't talk about non-signees.
8:16 a.m. Pat from Atlanta asked, "How long do the coaches expect this process to go on today? Will some of the letters not get signed until late in the day? There are rumors that we have a few last minute commits who probably want to have dramatic announcements." Answer: each recruiting coach was asked to get a time from their kids that they planned on signing and that goes up on our big board here in the room. So if we see that a kid has passed his time, then we get a little stressed. Looking at that board, I see that we should have some coming up soon, but we also have some that could stretch us up until Noon or so.
8:12 a.m. Question from Greg from Pittsburgh. "My question is how do the coaches deal with de-commitment issues from recruits that are committed? I am sure there is a back-up plan, but what if the de-committment occurs very late in the game, i.e. a few days before signing day. Or a player is a "soft commit" and still considering other schools? I always wondered what a "soft commit" is." I would say that most of the time, if the coach is doing his job right and talking to the kid regularly then you know if there is wavering. Coaches are recruiting up until the last minute and yes they have plans for how many guys at what position they need to recruit to make sure they have a final group on signing day. A soft commitment would be someone that a staff is not sure has truly made up their mind, knowing that it would come down to the last days for him to make a final decision.
8:04 a.m. Just to give everyone a head's up, we are experiencing some problems with Aikens' and Golden's videos. It is completely on our end. Some more questions ... "Can a recruit send in his letter of intent in PDF form via email or does the NCAA require it to be a faxed copy? Just seems like the fax method is a little antiquated in this day and age." Answer: Ironically we were just talking about that ourselves. Yes, you could send it in through email. But I think it is easier still to fax because a hard copy of the letter is sent to the kid, so the recruit would have to sign it, scan it in and then send it back that way. But if they wanted to, they could.
7:56 a.m. Let's welcome Hugh Thornton to the Illini family. Hugh had an interesting morning. He signed his letter, but again is from that part of Ohio that got a lot of snow last night so school was closed. He and his aunt, Lydia, left their house at 8 their time and drove around town until they could find a place open that had a fax machine. They eventually found a UPS store.
7:54 a.m. - Just got the letter for Tim Kynard. I remember Tim on his visit, which also was the big weekend on Jan. 23, but he officially committed on that Saturday night at dinner. We were all up in the Colonnades Club and he walked up to the table where a bunch of recruits were and told us all he was official. Everyone got up and man-hugged him. It really is a cool thing to watch, when all the guys of the same class begin to bond.
7:44 a.m. Joelil Thrash just sent in his letter. The DC connection continues. And two minutes after that we got Akeem Spence. So both Curt Mallory and Dan Disch have a small burden off their shoulders.
7:42 a.m. Well we have parts of two more letters in, but I cannot officially say who they are until we get every bit in over the fax. Another question, this one from right here on campus "How is Coach Zook's stress level this year as compared to his other years? Can you give us some insights into the legend that is Coach Zook's never-ending energy?" Answer: I don't think he is more stressed than in years past, but he is definitely stressed. But I can't imagine him being any different than other coaches in the country on this day. As for insight on his energy level, I wish I could tell you where it comes from because I have no idea and it is like nothing I've ever seen. I wish I could bottle it up and sell it.
7:36 a.m. Here's another question, from Chris Kelly from Ft. Myers, Fla. "How many Red Bulls has Zook had this morning? After all of this is done, signed, and wrapped up... do you guys have a little party there in the football offices, or do you raid a local establishment?" Answer: Believe it or not, Zook doesn't need any drinks to give him the energy he has. And yes, I imagine we will head to a restaurant/establishment on the SW side of town that the coaches enjoy. Someone got mad at me this morning that I scheduled his press conference so late (3:30 pm) because that means they can't leave until he is done with that. But obviously we need to wait til the afternoon to ensure that we get all the letters in.
7:32 a.m. While we have a short (stress-filled) break in the action, I will get another question in. Colin from Volo, Ill. asked "What is the doughnut of choice for each coach this year?" Answer: We actually don't have any doughnuts this year. On the staff room table right now we have a variety of McDonald's biscuits, Panera bagels and pastries and Jason, a friend of Coach Zook's brought by a homemade hot breakfast casserole. To be honest with you, the staff and support staff like myself are the real beneficiaries because Coach Zook is too anxious to eat anything. He's a pacer!
7:25 a.m. check out more videos on coachronzook.com. I believe we have all the current signees up already. Got another emailed question. "Does the coaching staff usually know a recruits school choice before their press conference or do they wait like we do for them to announce?" The answer is "Yes, they know all the schools they are considering and their feelings regarding each one. Most of the time, you feel confident about the fact that even though they may show hats from other schools, that they are choosing us. For example, Scheelhaase did his announcement on a regional television and had 5 hats out in front of him. However he had called Reggie Mitchell and Coach Zook to let him know that it was going to be us.
7:16 a.m. Bud Golden is No. 7. Again another Sycamore kid who had to deal with weather issues this morning. Bud is also one of those quiet kids, probably has a lot to do with the fact that he is the youngest of six kids. He also came in that big weekend.
7:11 a.m. Nathan Scheelhaase's letter is in. Scheelhaase is in a crazy situation. He left yesterday for a school retreat, came back this morning to sign and have his signing day ceremony and then is going back to the retreat and will be out of commission and out of cell phone reach for another couple of days, which will probably be nice for him.
7:09 a.m. Got my first emailed question in. Jim Merwin asked "how many recruits do you think the staff doesn't know about where they are headed until the LOI is sent to Illinois (hopefully) or elsewhere?" ... The answer to that question is very few. We need to send out letters of intent in advance and are only allowed to send out a certain number of those letters. So you aren't going to have a guy fax in an LOI that you didn't already plan on. Now it could vary based on how many scholarships you have available which could allow you to take some chances on guys, but most of the time the coaches are stretching the limit on the amount of scholarships they have.
6:45 a.m. Steve Hull is the fifth member of the class to send in his letter. Cincinnati got 8 inches of snow last night and early this morning so Steve literally had to fight through wind and snow to get his letter faxed in. I think he was still able to make it up to school however.
6:36 a.m. Walter Aikens is now officially an Ilini! This is a kid who our fans are going to fall in love with, very sharp. His parents came with him on his visit, which was the big weekend of Jan. 23rd. His father is the basketball coach at his high school where Walt is currently averaging 26 points per game. I also really bonded with his mom Michele, who wrote every member of the staff a thank you note when she got back to NC. Great woman!
6:33 a.m. The calls and faxes are flying in now. Justin Lattimore from Tampa was the third guy of the morning. Justin and his parents came in on their visit during our banquet weekend. He is a pretty quiet, shy kid, but a great player and the coaches are very excited about him.
6:09 a.m. Jake Feldmeyer of Centerville, Ohio is signee number two for the day. Again, he was one of the early commits who has never swayed from his excitement about attending Illinois. I got to spend some time with him on his official visit and he is a great kid. Super smart too. He scored a 31 on his ACT.
6:02 a.m. Even though the blog was set to start at 7 a.m., we already received our first letter. The early bird is Andrew Carter of Tallahassee. Carter was one of the first to commit to us and has been loyal through the whole process. He said that the main reason for choosing Illinois was the chemistry he felt with the staff. He also like the fact that when he came up to Illinois to visit he met players and professors as well as the coaches. He took his official visit during the Ohio State game weekend.