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The Illini's haulis the wonder of them all

IMAGINE THEbiggest geek in high school not only persuading Jessica Simpson to be his promdate but pinning corsages on Eva Longoria and Beyoncé as well. Illinois coachRon Zook pulled off the recruiting version of that fantasy last week when heinduced three coveted prospects to come to Champaign despite his 4--19 recordin two years there.

Never has such adowntrodden program attracted such a stellar class. Defensive end Martez Wilsonof Chicago spurned Notre Dame and USC. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn (right) ofWashington, D.C., turned down Florida State and Notre Dame. Defensive tackleD'Angelo McCray of Jacksonville switched from Florida to Illinois inDecember.

How did Zook pulloff a 17th-ranked class? "Our staff went out and made real connections withkids and their families," he says, "and we got the kind of players whowant to be part of turning a program around." Others are suspicious."If they had a winning program and all of that, it would be a differentdeal," said John L. Smith, the recently dismissed Michigan State coach, toThe New York Times last week. "Where there's smoke, there's probablyfire."

Zook, who deniesany violations, has always been an exceptional recruiter; while at Florida from2002 to '04, he signed 20 of the 22 eventual starters on the Gators' nationalchampionship team. And no one has made any specific allegations of wrongdoing."It's a shame that these rumors are out there," says Zook. "Butthat tells me that some of our competitors must feel we've been a little toosuccessful, which means we're doing something right."

Coming Soon to aField Near You

Here are the fivesignees likely to pay the biggest dividends as true freshmen

JIMMY CLAUSEN,QB, Notre Dame--He should be advanced: The younger brother of two formerstarting quarterbacks at Tennessee, Clausen, from Westlake Village, Calif., isalready on campus working with coach Charlie Weis.

EVERSON GRIFFEN,DE, USC--A speedy pass rusher from Avondale, Ariz., he'll help the Trojansforce turnovers--and let Brian Cushing, who played defensive end last year,return to his natural linebacking position.

MICHAEL MCNEIL,S, Auburn--A Tigers assistant told the hard-hitting McNeil, from Mobile, thatthe minute he set foot on campus, he'd be on the second team. He'll be startingbefore long.

TERRANCE TOLIVER,WR, LSU--The 6'5" Toliver, from Hempstead, Texas, will fit perfectly intonew coordinator Gary Crowton's spread offense.

MYLES WADE, DT,Oregon--Thin on the line, the Ducks signed several run-stuffers, and this6'2" 314-pounder from Portland will be the best of the bunch.

Elation andDeflation

Some schools hadreason to smile on Signing Day; others, not so much


NOTRE DAME Sevenrecruits are among's top 100, led by the quarterback every schoolwanted, Jimmy Clausen.

SOUTH CAROLINAThe Gamecocks' best class ever shows that coach Steve Spurrier can compete withthe traditional powers.

CAL The cropincludes running backs Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen, who could make their markearly on kick returns.


NOTREDAME--Despite an outstanding haul, the Irish just missed on several players andhad others back off verbal commitments.

MICHIGAN--Quarterback Ryan Mallett is in the fold, but plenty of in-statetalent went elsewhere, a troubling development.

ARKANSAS--Astrong season didn't equal a strong class, perhaps because some top 2006recruits have transferred or are considering it.