The Cat's New Kids

The 2001 recruiting class is a highly regarded group that includes 20 newcomers and two college transfers. More than half were captains of their high school teams, and 17 are honor roll students.

The group features Jeff Backes, a running back who was Ohio's "Mr. Football" in 2000; quarterback Brett Basanez, who was named Illinois Player of the Year by USA Today; Trai Essex, ranked fifth-best tight end in the nation by a leading scouting service; Greg Lutzen, a defensive end and Wisconsin's high school Defensive Player of the Year; and defensive tackle Thomas Derricks, ranked as one of the top 100 linemen in the country by another scouting service.

"I'm reluctant to heap a lot of praise on guys who have never played a snap of college football," Walker says, "but I think [the recruiting] was very good. I'm pleased." He says the group is very strong physically and academically. "I know for certain, unlike some of my fellow coaches, these guys are all going to show up in August and be ready to play. I'm not going to lie awake at night worrying about some of our signees and whether they'll be eligible.

"There are a lot of recruiting classes out there that won't be the same class that shows up in August because they don't meet the academic requirements of the NCAA. Every kid we signed is going to meet those with flying colors."

Walker relishes the experience of recruiting. "I think it's fascinating," he says. "I like going around the country and seeing kids in their homes, getting to know them. I love the diversity of our players. I come from a little bitty place where everyone is the same. I really like what I do. I like where it takes me."