Berth in Rose Bowl paying off for Illini as far as recruiting

Rockhurst quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase lined up a Who’s Who in July. Sitting on a table, the hats representing Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois also served as the finalists for Scheelhaase, a four-star prospect and a top target in the Midwest.

After leading Rockhurst to the Missouri Class 6 state championship as a junior last season and becoming the first underclassman to win the Simone Award as the Kansas City area’s best football player, Scheelhaase did what’s becoming a growing trend: He grabbed the orange hat and verbally committed to the Illini.

By landing three top 100 national recruits in this year’s senior class before football season began, Illinois coach Ron Zook took advantage of the unexpected berth in the Rose Bowl last season to lay the foundation for a highly ranked class. In his fourth full recruiting season with the Illini, Zook is off to his best start.

“They’ve finished really strong in all the other years,” said national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “This is his best start. The Rose Bowl appearance gave them credibility in the eyes of the kids.”

“Illinois recruiting is going fantastic. They’re starting to land the blue-chip athletes on a consistent basis. Their recruiting each year progresses, and the classes keep getting better.”

Zook’s early efforts at Illinois included stars, such as wide receiver Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson, but the classes are getting better from top to bottom, Lemming said. He rated Illinois’ class as No. 13 nationally in 2007 and No. 15 last winter.

A dual-threat quarterback whose father, Nate Creer, played defensive back on Iowa’s Big Ten title team in 1985, Scheelhaase is ranked as the No. 87 recruit nationally in the senior class by Lemming. East St. Louis receivers Kraig Appleton (No. 82) and Terry Hawthorne (No. 97) committed to the Illini earlier this summer.

Rivals.com has Scheelhaase rated as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback nationwide. The website had Appleton at No. 11 and Hawthorne at No. 18 among receivers, respectively.

With the trip to Pasadena, the Illini have something more to sell than playing time, although a second consecutive berth in a major bowl would help Illinois go after a higher caliber of athlete.

“It would show people we’re becoming more consistent,” said recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell. “Recently, it’s been a roller coaster. If we can maintain a level of being competitive and going to bowl games, we’ll be able to hold our own and maybe recruit a different level of kid.”

At this point, Illinois remained a “friends and family” recruiter rather than a true national player. Illinois will rely upon contacts in areas where the recruiters have a history, such as offensive coordinator Mike Locksley in Washington, D.C., line coach Eric Wolford in Ohio, Dan Disch in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mitchell in the St. Louis area.

“The more we get on national TV, the more success we have, that will help us with name recognition,” Mitchell said.

Chicago Morgan Park defensive end Craig Drummond is the state’s top-rated player by Lemming and the only other top 100 recruit inside the state still uncommitted. Lemming has Drummond at No. 36 overall. After scoring a 22 on his ACT, Drummond’s marketability skyrocketed.

Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, Miami, Southern Cal and Tennessee are among the schools recruiting him. Drummond indicated there is no leader. Otherwise, the Illini might need to go outside the state, although Lemming also called the entire Midwest down.

NOTE: The Rockhurst-Blue Springs (Mo.) South game will be televised on ESPN at 11 a.m. on Aug. 31. The game pits the last two Missouri Class 6 state champs.

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