Zook lands large class

By Lisa Koulias

Illinois football coach Ron Zook is known for his recruiting.

After he was hired as Illinois’ new football coach, Zook went right to his cell phone – but he wasn’t calling his family to tell them the good news.

Zook was on the phone with Derrick McPhearson, a wide receiver he had been recruiting for several years.

His second call? Mother of running back Rashard Mendenhall, the No. 1 recruit in Illinois.

On Wednesday, national signing day, the new coach announced his signing of these two players, along with 19 others to national letters of intent.

The most recent signee occured Wednesday night at 8:15 p.m., as JUCO transfer Ismail Abdunafi, a defensive tackle from Bakersfield, Calif., faxed his letter of intent to Illinois, according to scout.com.

“Recruiting is not an exact science and you have to fight until the end of some kids,” Zook said. “Tonight we did that and got a great kid in Ismail (Abdunafi). He is a solid player who has a chance to come in here and contribute right away.”

And one more could be on the way.

Cornerback Kennard Banks of West Palm Beach, Fla., verbally committed to Illinois. He has yet to sign with Illinois though.

“(This list) could grow by at least one body, possibly one, possibly two,” Zook said, refering to Abdunafi and Banks. “You never know, you just have to stick with it.”

McPhearson, a Hayatsville, Md., native, is listed as a four-star prospect by Scout.com and Rivals.com and is ranked 11th among Prep School prospects by Rivals.com. The wide receiver, who attended prep school last year, recorded 38 receptions for 778 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior at DeMatha High School.

“I personally have been recruiting Derrick for the past two or three years,” Zook said. “You have a relationship and a trust. He feels comfortable with where this program is going to go.

“He is a special young man, not only as a football player but as a person. He is a very classy guy and he comes from a great, great family. I think he has a chance to be a special player.”

Mendenhall, a five-star prospect from Skokie, Ill., averaged 9.1 yards per carry as a senior at Niles West, rushing for 1,453 yards on 160 attempts and 14 touchdowns. Mendenhall is already enrolled at Illinois and will participate in spring drills with the team.

“You watch tape on him, he gets you excited, you like the look in his eye,” Zook said. “Rashard is a good-looking young man that’s here.”

Mendenhall’s brother, Walter, is a redshirt freshman on the Illinois football team.

One thing that Zook really likes about this year’s class is not its athletes’ rankings, but how they will contribute to the team.

“The thing that I am excited about for this class … is the fact that we recruit guys not based on where they rank,” Zook said. “We recruit guys based on what our needs are and what type of student athletes that we feel will help our program.”

Zook was able to land three players using his Florida connection. Three of the incoming Illini hail from Georgia and three from Maryland. Eight of the athletes come from Illinois.

“We are really happy with the way we were perceived in the state of Illinois,” Zook said. “I think first of all the University of Illinois is the University of Illinois. It’s a very prestigious university, so obviously we have a lot of things to sell. And people wanted to listen and they wanted to see what it was all about.”

Zook was even able to lure two players to Illinois that had already shown interest in other Big Ten schools. Sam Porter had verbally committed with Michigan State, and Rahkeem Smith was giving serious consideration to Iowa.

Notes:

At Wednesday’s press conference, Zook also said that former Illini football players Brian Schaefering and Antonio Mason will no longer be playing for Illinois.