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February 19, 2007
Champaign Toast
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February 19, 2007

Phil Taylor's Recruiting Roundup

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Champaign Toast

The Illini's haul is the wonder of them all

IMAGINE THE biggest geek in high school not only persuading Jessica Simpson to be his prom date but pinning corsages on Eva Longoria and Beyonc� as well. Illinois coach Ron Zook pulled off the recruiting version of that fantasy last week when he induced three coveted prospects to come to Champaign despite his 4--19 record in two years there.

Never has such a downtrodden program attracted such a stellar class. Defensive end Martez Wilson of Chicago spurned Notre Dame and USC. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn (right) of Washington, D.C., turned down Florida State and Notre Dame. Defensive tackle D'Angelo McCray of Jacksonville switched from Florida to Illinois in December.

How did Zook pull off a 17th-ranked class? "Our staff went out and made real connections with kids and their families," he says, "and we got the kind of players who want to be part of turning a program around." Others are suspicious. "If they had a winning program and all of that, it would be a different deal," said John L. Smith, the recently dismissed Michigan State coach, to The New York Times last week. "Where there's smoke, there's probably fire."

Zook, who denies any violations, has always been an exceptional recruiter; while at Florida from 2002 to '04, he signed 20 of the 22 eventual starters on the Gators' national championship team. And no one has made any specific allegations of wrongdoing. "It's a shame that these rumors are out there," says Zook. "But that tells me that some of our competitors must feel we've been a little too successful, which means we're doing something right."

Coming Soon to a Field Near You

Here are the five signees likely to pay the biggest dividends as true freshmen

JIMMY CLAUSEN, QB, Notre Dame--He should be advanced: The younger brother of two former starting quarterbacks at Tennessee, Clausen, from Westlake Village, Calif., is already on campus working with coach Charlie Weis.

EVERSON GRIFFEN, DE, USC--A speedy pass rusher from Avondale, Ariz., he'll help the Trojans force turnovers--and let Brian Cushing, who played defensive end last year, return to his natural linebacking position.

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