That is, until now.
The commitment of Gabe Megginson is a bold symbol of a changing culture in Illinois football recruiting. An investment that's been in the works the last couple years is finally paying dividends as loyalty to the state is starting to return the favor.
Upon taking the job as head coach at Illinois, Tim Beckman spelled out his recruiting philosophy, which placed a greater emphasis upon recruiting within "Illini Nation." The first couple of classes, though, would be an uphill battle in Illinois.
In the class of 2012, Illinois landed only three of the top 30 players in the state, with the highest-ranked of those being J.J. Robertson, who committed during Zook's tenure and never made it to campus. Only 21 percent of the class was from Illinois. Talent wasn't lacking in-state in that class by any means, but the foundation still had not been set to keep those guys home.
In 2013, the Illini improved their standing in-state, landing four of the top 25 players in the state, including prized recruit and #6-ranked Aaron Bailey. The percentage of the class made up by Illinois natives came up slightly to 25 percent, however it still didn't have that home-rooted feel.
2014 saw that percentage slightly increase again to almost 28 percent. But that class, rankings aside, had a different feel to it. The bond among the in-state commits seemed to be stronger than in previous years, and many of them made it no secret that they were recruiting each other. The in-state members of the 2014 class took ownership and pride in being committed to their home-state school.
And though the Illini were landing a higher percentage of players from the state of Illinois, they were still searching for the formula to land the top players from within the borders and really make some noise in the Land of Lincoln.
The turning point may have been when long-time Illinois lean Dre Brown took the leap and committed to the Illini. Brown, a 4-star who held a few BCS offers and was in line to pick up several more, had visited Illinois numerous times and always spoke well of the program, but the act of his commitment may have served as the spark plug for other in-state recruits. He made it "cool" to go to Illinois again in some ways.
Credit quarterback commit Jimmy Fitzgerald, too. The Champaign product has been very active along with Brown in reaching out to the top in-state players and being local, he undoubtedly spends a lot of time on campus with potential recruits.
In addition to the obvious benefit of an improved perception around the program over the last year, the turnaround is really a result of organic growth of relationships within the state over the last couple years.
The Illinois coaches understand that you can't build an entire team from players from within the state, but they also understand the importance of building a team based upon the top players in the state. Some of the best players in Illinois history came from within Illinois. Names like J Leman, Rashard Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure, Juice Williams, Martin O'Donnell, Jeff Allen, Dana Howard, Simeon Rice, and, yes, even the Galloping Ghost Red Grange.
That's just a short list, but the amount of talent that has originated in Illinois is not something to be ignored.
The current landscape of Illinois football recruiting is not unlike the growth of bamboo. A bamboo plant spends significant time beneath the surface of the soil, establishing a dense root system strong enough to support the tall stalk once it takes off. And when it does break the surface, it grows at a torrid pace. The Illini are on a real upswing in regards to in-state recruiting. And the results of all the "planting" and "watering" are finally breaking through the soil.
Could this be the start of something big for Illinois? Only time will tell. But looking at the list of top prospects in the state of Illinois in 2015, the Illini sit well with several. Here's a look at a few of the next top targets. Let's start with the obvious:
David Edwards - TE, Downers Grove North:
Edwards, whose cousin Garrett Edwards played safety at Illinois, is another top-200 player nationally and has been a top priority and a big target for Illinois coaches for a while. The 6'6", 225 pound athlete is an option quarterback for his high school, but will be a pass-catcher in college. He's not afraid to make and take contact and has great overall athletic ability. Tight Ends coach Alex Golesh has been working diligently on building the relationship with Edwards and selling him on the program. Now he looks to close the deal.
Quinn Oseland - OT, Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin:
Illinois is looking for bookend tackles in 2015, and they just scored one half of that duo in Megginson. They are targeting another Central State 8 offensive lineman in Oseland at right tackle to complete that tandem. Oseland made huge leaps last season, culminating in a dominant performance in the state championship game. He has been to Illinois a handful of times for visits and has a great relationship with Offensive Line Coach A.J. Ricker. And of course he has guys like Malik Turner, Wes Lunt, and now Megginson in his ear trying to keep him from leaving the state as well.
Flynn Nagel - WR, Lemont:
Nagel is one of the most technically sound and polished receivers in the state of Illinois. He is much in the same mold as current Illinois receiver Mike Dudek, but has better physical strength than Dudek did at the same point in his career. Nagel has visited Illinois several times as well, and his priority on education (wants to major in Engineering) helps the Illini immensely.
Miles Boykin - WR, Providence Catholic:
Boykin is the top receiver in the state of Illinois and has BCS offers from all over the country. His first came from Illinois and he remembers that. Boykin has visited several times as well and has a great relationship with the Illinois coaches. Boykin will likely take his time with his recruitment, but he fits the mold exactly for the type of receiver Illinois is targeting in this class. Illinois may or may not land him when all is said and done, but the home-state program will be in it until the end.
Raequan Williams - DL, Gordon Tech
In what is an offense-heavy class this year in Illinois, Williams is one of the top defensive players on the board. A good student as well as a great athlete, Williams has drawn plenty of Big Ten attention. He holds an offer from Illinois and is expected to visit soon. Adding Williams would provide a huge boost to the defensive line.
Terry Beckner - DL, East St. Louis
The top-ranked player in Illinois in the 2015 class, Beckner is a top-100 recruit nationally and holds offers from a bevy of BCS programs all over the country. Beckner plays mean and is nothing short of an impact player for the Flyers. Since the departure of Reggie Mitchell to Kansas, Illinois has had a tough time breaking through at East St. Louis, but Mike Bellamy is working diligently to recapture the St. Louis Metro Area east of the Mississippi River.
Some others to keep an eye on…
Leon Thornton - WR, Montini Catholic:
Thornton, who holds an offer from the Illini, is another athletic receiver over 6'. A great route-runner with plus leaping ability, Thornton would add another weapon to an increasingly-dangerous receiving corps.
Cameron Green - WR, Stevenson:
Green, much like Thornton, is a taller receiver with the ability to go up and get it. He is more of a possession receiver and a great red zone threat, but he also can get deep if the defense lets him. A dual-sport athlete, Green has great hands and does very well high-pointing the ball in the air.
Micah Dew-Treadway - DL, Bolingbrook:
Treadway, who doesn't yet hold an offer from Illinois, could be very close to picking one up. After shedding several pounds from last summer, Dew-Treadway worked hard to rebuild his physique last season and proved what he was capable of when in good shape. His combination of length and rip/swim moves made him a threat at any position along the line for Bolingbrook last year. Definitely a guy to keep watch for.