CHAMPAIGN — As Ron Zook prepares to enter his seventh season as Illinois football coach, his home base for recruiting might not necessarily be the home state.

CHAMPAIGN — As Ron Zook prepares to enter his seventh season as Illinois football coach, his home base for recruiting might not necessarily be the home state.

“You start in Champaign and go as far as you have to go,’’ Zook said.

With a new athletic director in place and speculation over Zook’s job security rampant among media and opposing recruiters in the Big Ten Conference footprint, signing high school players from Illinois has become more difficult.

The hiring of Mike Thomas as Illini boss prompted another round of negative recruiting, sending the Illinois coaches back on the road in their talent search.

Zook is 28-45 in his first six years at Illinois with two bowl appearances, including a 38-14 win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl last season. The retirement of former athletic director Ron Guenther left him vulnerable in the eyes of his competition. The closer to home potential recruits are, the more they hear it.

“It’s easier (for Zook) to recruit out of state,’’ said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for “They have so much trouble recruiting locally. When you have that lame duck situation that a lot of (opposing) schools are selling to kids, saying why do you want to go there, it makes it really hard to recruit.’’

Low ranking

Illinois is off to a slow start recruiting the class of 2012. Among Big Ten teams, Illinois stood last in the rankings by with the recruiting season still young. The Illini have seven commitments, fewer than every school in the Big Ten but Nebraska.

Rivals ranked the Cornhuskers’ commitments as better quality. Of the Illini commitments, only Frankfort Lincoln-Way East wide receiver Jason Robertson, of Mokena, is from Illinois. Two commitments come from Florida with two more from Ohio.

Of course, a big season would make recruiting easier and perhaps quiet Zook’s critics.

“Their key is getting kids in the system,’’ Chicago-based recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re from locally or not. If they’re getting them from other places, then it’s fine. Illinois is doing very well nationally. I see their name everywhere on kids’ lists.’’

Going out of state for players is nothing new for Illinois. Former coach Mike White said he learned quickly that the notion of the Illini as a sleeping giant was a misconception because of the lack of a talent base.

There’s no way to own Chicago, and the downstate talent level wasn’t enough to carry the program.

So he went to California, Indianapolis and the Southeast.

Open city

The notion that Illinois should own Chicagoland is outdated, recruiting analysts agreed. Nobody owns Chicago.

“It used to be Notre Dame,’’ Lemming said. “Now, no one is dominating Chicago. It’s a wide-open town.’’

Easy accessibility makes Chicago an open market, and there are no allegiances to a particular school.

“Champaign is two or three hours to Chicago,’’ said Tim O’Halloran, a Chicago-based analyst for “For Illinois, the only problem with that is so is Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Michigan’s not that far off. Purdue is closer to Chicago than Illinois. It’s very, very difficult, even from a national perspective.

“You can be USC and Florida, fly to Chicago and hit 12 schools in a day, target your top kids, see them, be on a plane out of town. That’s a wonderful thing if you live in Chicago. If you’re trying to lock up the state, it’s almost impossible.’’

By using his connections elsewhere, Zook not only avoids some of the negative recruiting but also works prep programs that have been good to him in the past. Despite getting fired by Florida seven years ago, the state is his best hunting ground.

“He was the head coach of the biggest program down there,’’ Farrell said. “He didn’t win national titles, but he can say (former Florida coach Urban) Meyer won a national title with kids he recruited.’’

Illini assistant coaches Jeff Brohm, Joe Gilbert, Mike Gillhamer and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino also spend a great amount of time in Florida, but Zook is the leader of the pack.

“Zook is a likable guy,’’ Lemming said. “High school coaches in Florida respect that. That’s the key to the state.’’

Southern recruits play it smart, choosing to commit later in the process after watching it play out.

“You try to get guys up here to commit early,’’ Petrino said. “Down there, you have to hang on, keep fighting and hopefully get the commitment.’’

Good linemen

The Illini have done well with instate linemen and have bolstered the skill positions with predominantly Southern recruits. Four of the five projected starters on the offensive line hail from Illinois. Two of the four players expected to start on the defensive line also come from the state.

Meanwhile, five of the top six receivers are from Florida.

Starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase grew up in the Kansas City area, although freshman backup Reilly O’Toole was a recent in-state recruiting victory when he signed out of Wheaton Warrenville South.

Freshman Donovonn Young, a future star at running back from Texas (Houston suburbs), was an out-of-state recruiting win.

“That’s how you start pipelines,’’ Zook said. “You get a guy that comes as the first guy from an area. A couple things have to happen. He has to be happy. He has to be successful in the classroom and on the football field. If you get those things, it’s easier to get the next guy and the next guy.’’

No matter the low rankings were with the last two Illini recruiting classes, Petrino felt there was quality.

“Sometimes you have to believe in yourself,’’ Petrino said. “You watch them practice, watch them play in person. A lot of them come to camp. Then you believe in your own evaluations. For recruiting services, it might be a surprise. For us, they’re not.’’

Zook uses what he calls the friends-and-family recruiting philosophy, hitting the same people and the same areas.

Hoops state

The state of Illinois is known for producing linemen, O’Halloran said, because the skilled athletes often play basketball rather than football in the state.

“This is still a basketball state,’’ O’Halloran said. “You don’t have the abundance of skilled kids as you do down south.’’

Like other head coaches, Zook uses the recruiting backgrounds of his coaches. When the Illini first gained momentum under Zook while earning a berth in the Rose Bowl in 2007, the team was heavily influenced by recruits from Maryland and Washington, D.C., because of former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s knowledge of the area.

The remnants still exist, with linebacker Trulon Henry, safety Tavon Wilson and linebacker Ian Thomas.

“We came from about 15 (from Maryland and D.C.) down to about two other guys,’’ Thomas said. “I kind of thought the number would drop a bit. I never thought it would be this many. It’s a bunch of Florida guys now.’’

Like Zook said, the recruiting trail starts in Champaign, then goes as far as necessary.
 John Supinie can be reached at 217-377-1977. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.