Appleton falls far from Illinois’ tree

By Meghan Montemurro

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – Kraig Appleton did not add any additional suspense Wednesday morning as he prepared to publicly announce his college destination after a tumultuous recruitment.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound wide receiver was a walking billboard as he entered the library to sign his letter of intent at East St. Louis Senior High School, proudly donning a red Wisconsin Badger T-shirt and stocking cap along with a smile. The one-time Illinois verbal commit said the decision was difficult, especially to turn down the state school, but he “had to sit down and think what’s right for me.”

Asked when exactly his focus shifted from Illinois to Wisconsin, Appleton cited his visit to Madison, Wisc. on Oct. 4, 2008.

“I got a good feeling when I went up there,” Appleton said. “It’s kind of cold up there, but I can play in the cold. I got a real good feeling that (going to Wisconsin) would benefit me in the long run instead of what I wanted right now, which was to go to Illinois,” he said.

“I chose Wisconsin for the simple fact that I could help them in their offense because they are basically a dominant running team, opening it up to the pass,” said Appleton, who had 28 receptions for 657 yards and 10 touchdowns during his senior season. “Hopefully I can help them win another Big Ten Championship.”

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Appleton admitted people close to him had differing views as to where he should go, adding to the complexity of the decision. However, Appleton is confident that when he steps on the football field, the Badgers’ offense will become more efficient.

“I can open the offense up. They run a spread offense so teams won’t be keying in so much on the run, and hopefully we’ll become a balanced offense,” said Appleton.

During Wednesday’s press conference to announce the 2009 Illinois recruiting class, head coach Ron Zook briefly acknowledged the situation.

“I did see it coming,” Zook said. “There’s a lot of things that are involved behind the scenes that people don’t know.”

“Things happen, guys don’t go places for one reason or another,” said Zook.

Although he lost Appleton, Zook thwarted Bob Stoops and Oklahoma’s late advances on 6-foot, 175-pound receiver Terry Hawthorne.

Hawthorne, who was named the nation’s top receiver by Parade Magazine, said he had a little contact with the Sooners at the end of his junior year but hadn’t really heard much from them until his appearance in the All-American Under Armour game.

“(Illinois) stuck through my whole season, through the All-American game. Just all the way through,” Hawthorne said.

The prospect of catching passes from Heisman winner Sam Bradford wasn’t a big deal to Hawthorne since “you never know who’s coming behind him.”

Zook understood the predicament and treated Hawthorne’s situation as if were his own child’s recruitment.

“I’m concerned about all of (the recruits) until that paper comes across. Obviously, Terry asked if he could take a visit (to Oklahoma),” Zook said Wednesday.

“I feel confident enough in our program, and what we have here. If a guy’s committed and he wants to take a visit, that kind of puts us under a little pressure, but still, we’re asking them to trust us, and I think we have to trust them,” he added.

Hawthorne’s athletic ability allows him to play on both sides of the ball. During his senior season at East St. Louis, the No. 1-rated player in Illinois recorded 28 touchdowns and registered 1,009 receiving yards to accompany four interceptions returned for touchdowns. During his junior and senior seasons, Hawthorne, whose nickname is ‘Black Cat,’ saw time as a receiver, defensive back, punter and punt returner.

Hawthorne acknowledged the pressure he will face thanks to negative recruiting tactics employed by some schools attempting to change his mind. He said he set the record straight for those programs by telling them, “(Illinois is) where my heart is at.”

Hawthorne said he expects to start at wide receiver and help the team immediately. He’s excited for the future, especially to catch passes from quarterback and fellow 2009 recruit Nathan Scheelhaase. Family has been important to Hawthorne, and he hopes to recreate that atmosphere with the football team.

“He’s a very talented young man, he’s got soft hands, he’s a natural athlete,” Zook said of Hawthorne. “He can play defensive back, he can play both ways. He’s that kind of athlete. He’s a guy you want to get the ball into his hands.”

National recruiting analyst Tom Lemming ranked Hawthorne the No. 12 receiver nationally.

“I have him as one of the more exciting ball players in the country, and he could be an immediate impact player,” Lemming said Monday during a phone interview.

Flyers teammate Tommie Hopkins accompanies Hawthorne to Champaign and said he also wants to make a big impact as a freshman. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound safety adds depth to a young unit that struggled at times last season, especially against the pass.

“Tommie can play all four positions, whether it be a corner or a safety, he’s a shorter guy, but he’s a powerful guy,” Zook said. “I like those DB’s that can play all the positions.”

Hopkins said Coach Zook was a selling point because “he reminded me of (Flyers’) coach (Darren Sunkett).”

Defensive tackle Ty Phillips, who was interested in Illinois, chose to sign with the Missouri Tigers.

“Me and my dad have been big fans of Mizzou for a long time so we love the coaches there, the players are good,” Phillips said. “I like the school. We liked the coaching style.”

While Illinois was unable to land Appleton, Hawthorne and Hopkins are part of a class that Zook is confident will improve upon Illinois’ 5-7, bowl-less season.