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Columnist
Recruiting bliss for Illinois
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/4/2007 12:17 AM

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There's one small problem with Illinois' remarkable Rose Bowl-tinted success.

There might not be enough scholarships to accommodate all of the recruits who want to become Illini.

Did you ever think you'd read that sentence with a straight face?

"My phone is blowing up right now," Illinois coach Ron Zook said.

With 22 oral commitments on their current list -- and room for perhaps 10 more -- the Illini are in the unprecedented position of having to express their condolences to recruits who are recruiting Illinois.

"They're turning down guys right now that, a year ago, they would have been jumping up and down to get," said Jeff Johnson, Rivals.com's Illinois recruiting expert.

"It's getting to the point where they're going to have to make some decisions."

This trend didn't start when Illinois received its Rose Bowl bid Sunday.

It began building with the wins over then-No. 21 Penn State and No. 5 Wisconsin, then kicked into overdrive with the nationally televised victory at top-ranked Ohio State on Nov. 10.

"I think it's a combination of they've won, so it's not just a sales pitch," Johnson said. "And they've kind of made it a cool place to be. This year has been a great infomercial for Illinois football."

Zook and his crew already have commitments from prospects in eight states and the District of Columbia, but now they're casting their net even wider.

Four-star offensive lineman Dan Hoch (6-feet-6, 302 pounds), who lives in Harlan, Iowa, and withdrew his commitment to Nebraska, visited Illinois last weekend.

Akron defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus, who also showed interest in Michigan and Ohio State, visited Champaign last weekend, too, and liked it enough to commit to Illinois on Monday, according to Rivals.com.

Then there's Illinois' impending breakthrough at prospect factory Cleveland Glenville High School, which is coached by Ted Ginn Sr.

According to Johnson, the Illini are in good shape for four-star wideout Cordale Scott (6-3, 200) and defensive tackle Dawawn Whitner.

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has nabbed four-star defensive tackle Reggie Ellis from Washington's Dunbar -- the same school that delivered Vontae Davis, Arrelious Benn and Nate Bussey -- but he's not done working near the nation's capital.

DeMatha's Kenny Tate, a four-star "athlete" who checks in at 6-4, 215, is scheduled to be one of the 25 recruits who makes their official visit to Illinois this weekend.

If the Illini grab him, then Penn State, Florida and Maryland will be among those disappointed.

By the numbers: Illinois will be able to bring in approximately 30 recruits in this class because a handful, including Lemont all-state offensive tackle Graham Pocic, are planning to enroll in January.

Since the Illini brought in just 17 players this fall, they can enroll as many as eight more in January and have them count toward last year's 25-scholarship maximum.

Then they can sign as many as 25 more players in February, provided they have that many scholarships.

According to my count, there are 23 open scholarships when only the graduating seniors are included.

Now throw in Big Ten offensive player of the year Rashard Mendenhall's likely run to the NFL and wide receiver Kyle Hudson's likely concentration on baseball.

Then add the usual attrition with fourth-year juniors who aren't big contributors on the field -- I count three or four -- and a few underclassmen who don't make the grade in one fashion or another.

Suddenly that's 30-31 spots for new Illini, which could wind up being the biggest legacy of this memorable season.