RECRUITING: Chicago: An Illini kind of town

Jeffrey Allen, a guard from King College Prep, fields questions from the media during signing day in Chicago. Allen has been with the Illini all semester and is already enrolled in the University. Erica Magda

By Steve Contorno

CHICAGO – Ron Zook hasn’t overlooked the Windy City.

Though he’s traveled the country to snag another top-25 recruiting class – bringing in high schoolers from his Washington, D.C. pipeline and others from his former home in Florida – Coach Zook didn’t forget to make a few stops in Chicago. When the fax machines were finally silent Wednesday, National Signing Day, four of Illinois’ 29 athletes to sign letters of intent called Chicago home – more than any other city.

Of those four, three came from the Chicago Public League, a football conference establishing itself nationally as a recruiting hotbed. Wednesday morning, the league held a special event to honor the 10 Public League football players who were moving on to play at the college level. In a room filled with families, high school principals and football coaches, the orange and blue stood out as the hat color of choice for many in attendance.

Jack Ramsey, a defensive back and quarterback from Simeon Career Academy, wasn’t just wearing an Illinois hat, but a Block I-stamped tie as well. After signing his letter of intent, Ramsey stood up and said the perfect first words of an Illinois football player: “Go Illini.”

“I’m excited,” Ramsey said. “I was an early commit so I’ve been waiting for this day to come to an end so now I’m officially an Illini football player.”

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Ramsey, a three-star athlete, was all-city as a junior playing defensive back and all-city as a senior QB.

Nate Palmer signed his letter minutes before Ramsey, his co-captain at Simeon. Along with Illini linebacker Martez Wilson, Palmer and Ramsey represent the best that Simeon has to offer and will continue together to the next level. Palmer, especially, is excited to be reunited with Wilson.

“It was real nice playing with him in high school,” Palmer said of his former teammate. “I really liked that all the attention went to him and the flow came my way and I was making most of the plays. Most teams run away from Tez and they didn’t know who I was so I’d clean them up.”

Also joining the Illini from the Public League will be Jeff Allen, a three-star guard while at King College Prep. Allen has been on campus since the start of the spring semester training with the team and taking classes.

“It’s definitely a big adjustment getting used to the workouts,” Allen said, but added that he’s ready to play college football.

While the opportunity to play alongside fellow Public League players was a selling point for all three, the ultimate factor was Zook and his staff.

“The coaches, that’s the main thing,” said Palmer. “They put me down to earth like they were your friends. Everywhere else wasn’t like that, it was so uptight.

“He sat down and talked to my dad and he told him, ‘I can’t tell you what your son is going to do. What I can tell you is in four years he’s going to graduate with a college diploma.’ A lot of other coaches only talk about football. I thought, ‘Maybe this is the place for me.'”

For Allen, it was an issue of trust.

“He’s a regular person. He tells me the truth and tells it like it is,” Allen said.

Zook sees as much character in the athletes as they see in him.

Though he downplayed the Chicago connection in his press conference Wednesday – demonstrating his ability to recruit anywhere – he was still proud of discovering more talent at Simeon.

“Nate and Jack are both awfully, awfully good football players,” Zook said. “Both those guys have been working extremely hard and are good football players and good people.”

The Public League is taking notice of Zook’s ability to recruit within the city.

“Illinois is doing a great job; Zook and all those guys are doing a great job recruiting,” said Mickey Pruitt, the Public League’s city-wide football coordinator. “You see the guys they’ve gotten the last two or three years (including Wilson and Juice Williams) and then coming back to the public schools now and getting three, that’s tremendous.”

Ramsey, Palmer and Allen all have high hopes for Illinois in the next few years – winning a Rose Bowl; winning a national championship; beating Minnesota, who recruited two Public League players as well – but maybe the most important is helping to solidify Chicago’s place in Champaign.

“It’s going to be good for the city and the state of Illinois. Some people from Texas and Florida stay home; that’s what we’re trying to do, build a dynasty at Illinois,” Ramsey said.