March 28, 2021
In some ways, Ron Zook was still at the height of his recruiting powers in 2009, but in others, this class was the beginning of the end. The class itself was highly-ranked at 35th in the nation with only 21 members in the class. However, Illinois has already fallen from its successes of 2007 with a poor 2008 season and there were some rumblings about whether Ron Zook was going to be able to sustain his success at Illinois.
Mike Locksley had left Illinois in December 2008 to become the head coach at New Mexico and Illinois had replaced him with Mike Shultz in what would become a disastrous year on offense. Reggie Mitchell was still there, but no longer had the magic touch in the Chicago area that had brought Juice Williams and Martez Wilson to Illinois.
This class also included a few players who didn't finish their careers at Illinois and helped Illinois rise in the ranks of the "Fulmer Cup" standings, sarcastically awarded to the team that suffers from the most criminal issues off the field each year. So, here they are, in alphabetical order:
Walt Aikens: Aiken was a late addition to the class based on a tip Ron Zook got from a friend down south. Even though Aikens had not stood out on the football field, this guy was an amazing athlete:
If you care to search further, you can see more evidence of Walt Aikens' athleticism. He wasn't just an incredible leaper, he was also fast and quick enough to play cornerback in the NFL, though is main contributions were on special teams. At Illinois Aikens got on the field right away and started five games at safety as a freshman. He recorded 32 tackles and was on the Big Ten all-freshman team. However, he and at least one of his classmates stole several items from other students and were caught in possession of the stolen goods. Ron Zook suspended the perpetrators immediately and Aikens transferred to Liberty University after a two week jail sentence. At Liberty he had 162 tackles and nine interceptions in three years as a cornerback. The Dolphins drafted Aikens in the fourth round and he played there through his rookie contract plus a two year extension through 2019. Aikens signed with the Titans for 2020, but he failed a physical and appears to be done with football. The young man was such a good athlete that he also played college basketball at Liberty and competed in the sprint events as well as the long jump and high jump events on the Liberty track team. Aikens represents the theme of this class in that Ron Zook and Illinois' football program could have been so much better off had the talented players in this group completed their careers at Illinois.
Michael Buchanan: Buchanan came in as a four-star athlete who oozed potential but who took some time to reach his potential. Buchanan did have a successful career at Illinois and earned a short NFL career after he put some muscle on his skinny frame. Buchanan entered 10 games as a true freshman but recorded only one pass defended. However, the program (I would say Ron Zook, but allegedly it was Ron Guenther who made these moves) added Vic Koening after the 2010 season and Koening knew just what to do with Buchanan, installing him at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "bandit" position in his new defense. Buchanan started 8 games and recorded 2.0 sacks in his sophomore year but topped that with 7.5 and 4.5 sacks in his junior and senior years together with an interception. His performances earned him some second team all Big Ten nods in his years at Illinois. The Patriots drafted Buchanan in the 7th round. He recorded 2 sacks in his two years there and got a Super Bowl ring to boot. However, the Patriots let him go and Buchanan never caught on in the NFL again. He tried to make it in the CFL for a couple years but that didn't work out either.
Lendell Buckner: He was a highly-rated defensive lineman out of Chicago Leo and a teammate of classmate Leon Hill. However, Buckner was implicated in the theft that cost Walt Aikens his spot at Illinois and Buckner also was forced to leave after his redshirt freshman year without playing a down. I can't find any record of Buckner resurfacing at another program.
Andrew Carter: This is a truly unfortunate story that was completely unexpected. Carter came to Illinois as a polished if undersized offensive lineman who figured to get playing time fairly quickly. However, Carter redshirted in 2009 and didn't take the field in 2010 before doctors found a benign brain tumor which ended Carter's football career. However, Carter did leave a lasting impact at Illinois via the annual "lift for life" fundraising event which is still held by the Illinois chapter of uplifting athletes in Carter's honor.
Jake Feldmeyer: Feldmeyer was the talk of Illinois message boards when Ron Zook added him to this recruiting class. The reason is a high school highlight film that showed him racing down the field and dominating defenders along the way. However, Feldmeyer was also lightly recruited and looked more like a tight end than a lineman. Some fans were awaiting an NFL career for Feldmeyer based on the film while others were lamenting the waste of a scholarship. The truth was closer to the later than the former, though Feldmeyer worked hard and added enough size to his frame to start four games at center in his redshirt junior year.
Greg Fuller: Fuller came to Illinois with some promise and offers from many other Big Ten schools. However, after a redshirt year he allegedly had grade issues and left the program without ever playing a down. I cannot find any record that he played football again.
Bud Golden: It was a real coup when Zook secured Golden's commitment from the excellent Sycamore High School football program in Cincinnati. He was a four star prospect and running back looked like a real need for the future for the Illini. However, Golden struggled from the minute he got on campus. He didn't have the speed or size to compete in the Big Ten and transferred to Tennessee Tech after taking a redshirt year. Golden got sparse playing time at Tennessee Tech, totaling 380 rushing yards over his three remaining years of eligibility.
Justin Green: Ron Zook managed to sway Justin Green from his commitment to hometown Louisville late in the recruiting process and it looked like that was a big get for Illinois. Green had earlier been offered by Ohio State, where his brother played, but spurned the Buckeyes and then the Cardinals in order to have a chance to play at running back. He did play running back for one year as a true freshman before switching to his more natural position at cornerback. Green started 29 games at corner in his three remaining years in Champaign. Though he was not drafted, Green secured a practice spot on the Patriots' practice squad and the Patriots even elevated him to the active roster for a game late in his rookie year. However, the Patriots soured on Green and dealt him to the Cowboys at the end of his next training camp. The Cowboys promptly cut Green and he spent a few years trying to catch on in the CFL before retiring in 2017.
Aaron Gress: Zook dipped into the JUCO ranks late in the recruiting cycle for Gress because Illinois needed some depth at linebacker. However, like all too many JUCO entries to Illinois, the guy that was advertised was not the guy that showed up in Champaign. Listed at a comically inaccurate height and weight of 6'2, 240 on signing day, Gress arrived in Champaign looking more like a safety than a linebacker. Illinois listed him on the roster at 6'0, 220 and that may also have been generous. Regardless, Gress was a key contributor on special teams and did get a little bit of playing time on scrimmage downs.
Terry Hawthorne: Getting Hawthorne to Illinois was a real recruiting coup given that the Illini had not been successful in securing highly-rated players from East St. Louis to Champaign for quite some time. However, Hawthorne came across the state and had a successful career at Illinois. Hawthorne started five games as a true freshman and turned in 30 tackles as well as an interception which he returned for a touchdown. Hawthorne didn't progress as much as the Illini hoped in the next three years, though he did record 162 tackles, 6 interceptions and another touchdown in the remainder of his Illinois career. He was honorable mention all Big Ten in his junior and senior campaigns and though he was a fifth round pick of the Steelers, he was an early cut and never caught on with another team. Like Buchanan, Hawthorne attempted a comeback in the CFL but it didn't work out. Hawthorne is currently an assistant coach for the East St. Louis High School team.
Leon Hill: He was a highly-rated lineman who, like Carter, was also expected to come in and help plug some huge holes in the offensive line depth chart. Hill had been a high school teammate of Lendell Buckner and both committed to Illinois in February of his Junior year. However, Hill left the team after his freshman year, allegedly due to poor grades. Hill moved on to Glenville State, where he played on both sides of the line.
Tommie Hopkins: Some would say Hopkins was a package deal with Hawthorne, but Hopkins was a great, if raw, athlete who also had the ability to play Big Ten football. However, after redshirting in his freshman year, Hopkins left the program and allegedly the cause was poor grades as well. I also can't find any record of Hopkins catching on with another college program.
Steve Hull: This is a guy who will be remembered perhaps a little better than his career stats indicate. When Illinois signed Hull, most fans thought he was the lesser part of a package deal that Illinois made in order to get the highly-rated Bud Golden. However, it was Hull who had the more memorable career in Orange and Blue. Hull had played both wide receiver and safety in high school and had looked credible on both sides of the ball. Given that Illinois was depleted by personnel losses in the defensive backfield, Hull played for three years at safety before he switched back to offense. Hull practiced at receiver in his true freshman year, but moved to safety during training camp of his redshirt freshman year when the team decided it needed him more on defense. He got one start at safety that year during a fair amount of playing time. Hull started all of his sophomore year and most of his junior year at safety before a persistent shoulder injury ended his season. Hull moved back to receiver in his senior season in order to preserve his body and put together an excellent year. He ended his career with a stat line which has not been seen since players routinely played on both sides of the ball: 94 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 59 receptions, 993 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Saints gave Hull a chance as an undrafted free agent, but Hull's collection of injuries from college were too much for him and he retired in training camp.
Tim Kynard: Zook added Kynard late in the process despite a lack of other offers and a questionable film. However, Kynard worked hard on his body and was a consistent presence on the defensive line throughout his years in Champaign. Kynard gained 30 pounds of muscle in his redshirt year and the staff rewarded him with playing time in a reserve role in his redshirt freshman and sophomore years. Kynard then became a part-time starter as a junior and started nearly every game as a senior. The stat line is not impressive because Kynard recorded only 62 tackles and 4.5 tackles in his extensive playing time, but Illinois fans will remember Kynard tying up two blockers in the middle of the line and playing to the whistle on every down.
Justin Lattimore: Illinois added Lattimore late in the recruiting process hoping he would bring an athletic dimension to the offense but Lattimore was not a significant performer in his four years in Champaign. Lattimore earned a start in his redshirt sophomore year and gained the highlight of his career with a touchdown on what would become the only reception of his career. Lattimore earned a few snaps as a special teamer but otherwise was mainly a sideline observer. He did not return for his redshirt senior year in Champaign.
Nate Scheelhaase: He is the unquestioned "best in class" for this group. Scheelhaase redshirted in his first year and then took over the offense, and really the team, for the next four years. You'll find Nate Scheelaase's name throughout the Illinois record book. He's third in Illinois history for career passing efficiency, attempts and yardage. His 2013 season was the best in Illinois history for passing efficiency in Illini history but that record lasted only one year because Wes Lunt just passed him the next year. He even set the record for most consecutive pass completions with 15 against Northwestern in 2013. Scheelhaase tied for most starts in history with 48 and also proved to be a weapon with his legs, recording the second most career rushing yards by a QB with 2,066 and the most in a season with 868 in 2010. And to put those numbers in context, keep in mind that Scheelhaase's last two years at Illinois were also Tim Beckman's first two years. This man was truly fighting uphill during what should have been the best years of his career.
Scheelhaase earned the Big Ten Medal of Honor when he graduated in 2013 and chose to spend a year as a youth minister in 2014. Illinois lured him back to Champaign for a staff position in 2014. He then started his coaching career when Illinois needed someone to work with the running backs when Bill Cubit became the head coach in 2015. Lovie Smith demoted Scheelhaase to an offensive analyst position for the next two years, which was a loss to the program as a whole because he left for a full time position at Iowa State in 2018. He has since gained a few promotions and serves running game coordinator for a successful program in Ames.
Akeem Spence: Spence is Scheelhaase's main competition for "best in class" for 2009. Spence started as a true freshman and improved consistently in his three years in Champaign. Spence was just a shade over 6'0 tall and just a bit heavier than 300 pounds but he was a disruptive force in the middle of the defense who was difficult to move and even more difficult to control. Spence racked up 186 tackles, 16.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks before he left early for an NFL career that continues today. The Buccaneers made Spence a fourth round pick in 2013 and he proceeded to play for five other NFL teams (and counting).
Hugh Thornton: Like Akeem Spence, Hugh Thornton was able to play right away when he got to Champaign. He worked his way into the starting line-up during his true freshman year, starting seven games at right tackle. Thornton spent the next two years at weakside guard (you may remember that Illinois spent two years lining its linemen up on different sides depending on the play). He then moved to left tackle as a senior and rode that versatility to an NFL career after earning second team All Big Ten honors as a senior. The Colts picked Thornton in the third round and he started 12 games in his rookie year and a combined 20 games over the next two years. However, injuries dogged Thornton from that point and he never played another NFL game. Thornton signed with the Falcons after his rookie deal with the Colts expired but he retired after Spring minicamp. Thornton then took a year off and attempted a comeback with the short-lived American Football Alliance and then the Washington Football team in 2019 but appears to be done with football.
So, even though this class produced one of Illinois' all-time greats in addition to six players who were on NFL game-day rosters, it is also one of the most frustrating classes of all time. Two of the players in this class were implicated in criminal issues and rumors persist about the three others who left the program at the same time without playing a down of football in the Orange and Blue.
The players who remained at Illinois got to participate in bowl games in 2010 and 2011, but then suffered through the first two years of the Tim Beckman era in their last two years when they would have been at their best. The amount of NFL talent that Tim Beckman inherited in 2012 is a pretty damning indictment of his coaching ability considering that these players were 6-18 in 2012 and 2013.
Thanks for reading.
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