Illinois head Coach Ron Zook was born in Loudonville, Ohio, and grew up in the Buckeye State. He graduated from Miami of Ohio and held coaching positions at Cincinnati and Ohio State.
Zook is well aware of the abundance of high school football talent in Ohio, so it is certainly not surprising that he has made recruiting the Buckeye State a priority for his Fighting Illini coaching staff.
In his 2008 class, Zook signed four more Ohioans. Wide receiver Cordale Scott, defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus, linebacker Justin Staples and defensive back Ashante Williams all signed with the Illini last recruiting season. Scott was the coup for Zook. He was one of the top 10 prospects in the Buckeye State last season and Jim Tressel definitely wanted him to become a Buckeye. Scott interrupted the Cleveland Glenville to Ohio State pipeline when he surprised the recruiting world and picked the Illini over the Bucks.
This recruiting season it looked like Zook had done it again. One of the country's top defensive ends, Melvin Fellows (No. 107 on the ESPNU 150) from Garfield Heights, Ohio, committed very early to Illinois. However after subsequently landing a scholarship offer from Tressel, Fellows changed his commitment to Ohio State in April.
Zook is far from done in the Buckeye State this season. He has scholarship offers out to offensive linemen Marcus Hall, Hugh Thornton and Jake Brandt, defensive end Cornelius Carradine, linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive back Mike Edwards. All six are considering the Illini. Hall, Carradine and Kuechly are among the top 25 prospects in the state of Ohio, and Hall has an offer from Ohio State.
Zook knows going into the Buckeye State and beating Tressel is very difficult. The only prospect he has taken away from the Buckeyes thus far is Scott. He also knows there is so much talent in Ohio, he can come away with players that can help his program even if Tressel does not offer them.
One of Zook's strategies is to get on top of things early in Ohio and extend a scholarship offer before Ohio State or anyone else does. That is how he landed the early commitment from Fellows even though it did not stick.
Zook has already begun his aggressive approach with the Ohio class of 2010. He has extended scholarship offers to linebacker Jamel Turner (Youngstown/Ursuline), offensive lineman Matt James (Cincinnati/St. Xavier), defensive end Darryl Baldwin (Solon) and linebacker Jordan Hicks (West Chester/Lakota West).
The biggest recruiting battles in the state of Ohio have traditionally been among Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame. With Zook at Illinois, the Illini are very much in that mix.
Notes from the Midwest
• When East St. Louis, Ill., wide receiver Kraig Appleton decided to commit to Illinois, it gave Zook a huge in-state catch. Appleton is the No. 108 prospect on the ESPNU 150 and was one of just four ESPNU 150 prospects from the Big Ten region that had not selected a college. Appleton also became the third prospect from East St. Louis High to commit to Illinois this year. He joins teammates Terry Hawthorne and safety Tommie Hopkins who had previously committed to the Fighting Illini.