Recruiting Top Priority For LB Coach Ward

The Fighting Illini football team sought depth for their two inside linebacker positions and signed three promising players in February. Linebacker coach Mike Ward talks about the assets these players bring to the team. He also discusses recruiting in general and what he looks for in prospective linebackers in part two of his interview.

Mike Ward is pleased Illinois signed inside linebackers T.J. Neal, Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim in February. They will add quality depth to the Illini team.

"All three of those guys come from good programs. All three are physical kids, and all three are pretty good students. We are counting on these guys to come in and provide us with some quality depth right away. Whether it be on special teams or every down. It's gonna be how fast they can adjust and adapt to the system.

"All three of them are completely different. T.J. Neal had offers from Florida, West Virginia, Nebraska and Tennessee. He just got closed out because he didn't commit early.

"Mike Svetina was a safety last year. He went from a safety to a linebacker. He committed early and probably shut the door on some schools. We had a pretty good relationship with him.

"Mason Monheim had an offer from Illinois early, but the coaching transition left that up in the air. We just revisited that. We know the caliber of individual and player that he is. All three are going to be good players for us."

Is it a concern that none of them are tall for their positions?

"Ian Thomas and Jonathan Brown had a lot of success last year. Thomas was not very tall, but he was a physical football player. T.J. Neal reminds us of him quite a bit.

"You see some great linebackers, like Mike Singletary for instance, that were not the biggest linebackers. Dana Howard was not the biggest linebacker. He was 240 pounds, but he was 6'-1". Last time I checked, he was pretty good. The bottom line is recruiting winners, guys from winning programs and guys that know how to work."

Ward shares the characteristics he considers important in recruiting linebackers.

"A leader on the field, and a leader off the field. Downhill, physical football player and tackles well in space. A take-charge kind of guy. These are the guys that have to be the quarterbacks of the defense."

Illini coaches were late to the table for this last recruiting class. Many prospects were already committed elsewhere by the time Tim Beckman was hired to lead the team. Beckman and his assistants made sure the players they signed February 1 possessed characteristics that provide a foundation for future Illini teams.

"The biggest thing we looked for in the first recruiting class is for guys that we knew, so that when it's time to go to battle, you know what you've got out of these individuals. We wanted to make darn sure that we did our homework on the character, the quality of the program and the quality of the families that they come from.

"If you're going to get into a fight or struggle, you want to do it with people you know and trust. We had to hit the ground running, so when it came to decision-making time, we wanted to go to war with the guys that we know and feel good about."

Academics is always an important consideration when recruiting at Illinois. There are a few players each year who are qualified by NCAA standards but cannot be admitted to the UI. Does this pose a major restriction on recruiting?

"I wouldn't say that. We just have to find ways to find guys that are serious about academics. There's some restrictions that we're working through, and the school is definitely working with us."

Of course, the Illini are competing against several established Midwest powerhouses in recruiting. They use all sorts of propaganda ploys to prop up their programs at the expense of their competitors. Illini coaches have much to overcome with top prospects, but Ward believes they can persevere.

"We can't worry about that. That's however they want to spin it. The bottom line is us going out and establishing relationships with high school coaches and the recruits and their families. And don't look back. Recruit the best kids that we know, guys that we can trust, and just keep going.

"What determines the difference between a three and four-star (player), or between a four and a five-star? And who determines that? There's a lot of gray area there.

"The bottom line is recruiting the best quality student-athlete that you can. There is quality coaching throughout the Big Ten. You've got a recruit to your needs, and you've got to take care of your backyard first and then spread it from there."

One might think all the competition in the Big 10 might deter coaches from moving to Illinois, but that certainly wasn't a problem for Ward.

"I would say it's not that difficult to compete. Our job is to educate kids on the history and tradition of the program. I think once they understand that, once we get them on campus we have a chance to sell them.

"The initial contact has got to be early. There's got to be a connection with the high school coach, which we're all going to have because of our personalities and the way we recruit. I think that's going to give us a leg up."

Ward will go anywhere in the country for a top linebacker, but he's also responsible for canvassing specific recruiting areas.

"I'm going to have Northwest Ohio and the northern half of Indiana. And a good portion of the southwest suburbs of Chicago. That includes all the Lincoln-Way, Joliet and Plainfield (schools), which is a growing area. All the way over to Homewood-Flossmoor and into Indiana."

Of course, patience is necessary. It takes time to develop relationships. While Illini coaches were scouring the countryside for seniors to sign, their competitors were making inroads with underclassmen. It will take time to catch up.

"Recruiting-wise, we're trying to make up for lost time. It'll probably be a full year before we get caught up. But we're doing everything we can."

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