Touted Illini recruits settle into University life

Arrelious Benn arrived on campus this week and started classes, January 16, 2007. Benn, one of the top high school recievers in the country left high school early to begin classes and football workouts here at Illinois. Brad Vest

Brad Vest

Arrelious Benn arrived on campus this week and started classes, January 16, 2007. Benn, one of the top high school recievers in the country left high school early to begin classes and football workouts here at Illinois. Brad Vest

Four new Illini started classes yesterday and will join the football team for offseason conditioning and spring practice in April.

The most prominent among the early arrivals is wide receiver Arrelious Benn, a five-star recruit from Dunbar High School in Maryland.

Benn, a former teammate of Illini cornerback Vontae Davis, leads off what many analysts are considering a top-10 recruiting class.

“I wanted to get a head start,” said Benn on coming to Illinois early. “With football, and with my academics.”

Benn is considered one of the top recruits at his position and chose Illinois instead of Notre Dame, Maryland and USC, among others. As a senior, he caught 56 passes for 1,039 yards and nine touchdowns.

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“I picked Illinois because I wanted to be different, to do something different,” Benn said. “And I love Coach Zook. Other coaches, outside of football, they don’t care about you. Other coaches, if you want to go see them you can’t just walk into their office, you have to see a secretary. That’s not normal other places.”

Erique Robertson, a linebacker from Maple Heights, Ohio, also left high school a semester early to begin classes at Illinois.

Robertson is a three-star recruit according to and chose Illinois instead of six other schools including Iowa, Cincinnati and Ohio.

Illinois also nabbed Bo Flowers, a former minor league baseball player who decided to give college football a try.

Flowers was drafted by the Tigers in 2002 and traded to the Cubs in 2005 and is expected to play safety for the Illini.

Rounding out the group is Daniel Dufrene, a junior college running back who was an all-conference selection while playing at the College of the Sequoias in Florida.

After high school, he signed with Vanderbilt, spending one semester as a redshirt there before transferring.

He rushed for 750 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

Dufrene’s arrival significantly increases the level of experience among Illinois’ running backs as E.B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas finished their eligibility in 2006.

“We knew going into next season and specifically spring ball, it would be important for us to increase our numbers at the running back position,” head coach Ron Zook said in a press release. “Daniel offers a great amount of speed and athleticism which will add to the depth of the position.”

Illini lead Big Ten in rushing

Illinois football finished on top of some important statistics, the Big Ten announced last week.

The Illini lead the conference in rushing, averaging 188.8 yards per game. The season-long performance was enough to place Illinois in the top 10 nationally, as the team finished 10th in the NCAA rankings.

The Illini effort was led by running backs Halsey, Rashard Mendenhall and Thomas, as well as freshman quarterback Juice Williams.

“It reflects our maturity as a team to a degree,” offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. “We put a big emphasis on it, especially with a young quarterback, we knew it would be something that would be necessary if we were to have any chance of success.”

In 2006 the team rushed for 2,266 yards, the best total number in 33 seasons. The per game average was the team’s best performance since 1978.

Illinois’ offense averaged 5.2 yards per rush, a Big Ten best and the fifth-best average in the country.

“The running backs were the strength going into the season. We felt we had experience on the offensive line, and we thought we’d have an offensive line that would give us a chance to run the ball,” Locksley said. “It was a clear-cut emphasis, to take some pressure off our freshman quarterback by being able to run the ball well. It was a huge point of emphasis for us offensively.”

Notable statistics from Illinois’ defense came from linebacker J Leman, who led the conference with 152 total tackles and 12.7 tackles per game. Fellow linebacker Antonio Steele finished 10th in the Big Ten with 7.1 tackles per game. Illinois’ defense improved from 10th overall in 2005 to fifth in 2006.

On special teams, junior Jason Reda finished third in field goals per game, third in field goal percentage and first in PAT percentage by making every extra point attempt.

Maddox makes all-star event

Senior offensive lineman Matt Maddox may be done with his degree and college football career, but the four-year starter is still representing Illini football.

Maddox, who started at right guard for three seasons and played center for one, will participate in the East-West Shrine Game in Houston, Texas, on Jan. 20.

“It’s quite an honor to play in this game, it’s kind of a college senior bowl game,” Maddox said in a phone interview from Texas. “This game is loaded with agents and scouts just trying to get a hold of guys, so it’s a great opportunity.”

Maddox started every game of his college career except the last one, when he was unexpectedly hospitalized with a staph infection. He was named a freshman All-American and was twice chosen as the team’s Outstanding Offensive Lineman.

Maddox is currently in Texas preparing for Saturday’s game.

“Any time you’ve got a guy who started for four years, obviously game experience is something you just can’t buy,” Locksley said. “I think his experience in two styles of offense, that he’s played center and guard, makes him that much more marketable. He’s a smart player, and I think playing in that game is a testament to him working hard and putting the time in.”