The revamped Illinois football staff is meeting this week to set their recruiting big board and plan of attack for the final, furious month before Signing Day.
The new assistants -- offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, tight ends/special teams coach, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle and defensive backs coach Paul Williams -- all bring new areas and new ties into the fold, so the Illini have expanded their search to find instant impact talent.
The Illini currently have 19 commitments that make up a class that currently ranks 11th in the Big Ten (53rd nationally), with nine offensive commits, nine defensive commits and one specialist. Though not all the current commits are expected to sign on National Signing Day (Feb. 3).
Illinois currently plans to fill six more scholarships in this class -- though that is subject to change -- with a majority of those set aside for offensive positions. The Illini plan for three big weekends of official visitors, Jan. 15, Jan. 22 and Jan. 29, to try and secure their targets.
Today, I break down what Illinois wants in those positions and who they are targeting.
Tomorrow, I will break down the defense.
Scholarships by position
- Offensive line (2)
- Tight end (1)
- Wide receiver (1)
- Running back (possibly one)
Illinois wants to add bigger bodies to the interior and would like to add another long but strong offensive tackle. The staff could add three offensive linemen if East St. Louis guard Tre'Vour Simms really signs with Missouri.
- Grayson Stover, OT Hudson (Fla.): While the Florida native is currently ranked just a two-star prospect, he has a multitude of power-five teams wanting to secure his signature. Indiana may be the leader with Iowa State charging hard and Maryland in the mix too. Illinois may not have great odds, but they are in the mix.
- Mike Williams, OT Bessemer (Ala.) Academy: Illinois is one of the few offers for this under-the-radar prospect, but Illinois really likes the Alabama left tackle, who graded out at 91 percent and finished with 48 pancake blocks during his senior season. Illinois may prioritize him.
- Sean Foster, OT Mundelein (Ill.) Carmel: The former Minnesota commit has a four-star ranking (which is debatable), dozens of offers and a huge frame. He reminds me a bit of former Illini Pat Flavin: a really intriguing frame but questions about whether he has the quickness and athleticism to survive on the perimeter in the Big Ten. Some schools are backing off, seemingly unwilling to roll the dice on him.
- Shane Richards, OT New Mexico Military Institute: Illinois recently offered the MASSIVE -- 6-foot-7, 335-pound -- JUCO prospect who has two years of eligibility remaining. He has visits planned to Oklahoma State and Louisville.
- Ben Knutson, OT Mishawaka (Ind.) Penn: The Virginia commit likely will stay with new Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall, but Illinois is interested.
- Spencer Kanz, OT Luxemberg (Mich.) Casco: The Western Michigan commit has long had an Illinois offer.
- Trystan Castillo, OG Webb City (Mo.): The Mizzou commit is reconsidering his options, and Illinois offensive line coach A.J. Ricker has a close relationship with the powerful Missouri native.
- Mackenzie Nworah, OG Marvel (Texas): The Mizzou decommit has re-opened his recruitment, and Ricker has a built-in relationship with the big, powerful Texan.
- Darta Lee, OG Sugar Land (Texas) Hightower: The Illini sit in the driver's seat for the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Texan.
- D'Ante Smith, OL Grovetown (Ga.): The Appalachian State commitment is starting to hear from bigger schools, including Illinois.
Illinois has several long wideouts who can box out defenders (Malik Turner, Sam Mays and incoming recruit Dominic Thieman), but the staff wants a burner who can stretch the field, something they lacked this season due to injuries to Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee. Most of their remaining wideout targets are in the Lonextar State.
- Zach Farrar, Southlake (Texas) Carroll: Farrar has the full package of skills: size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), strength, athleticism and speed. But because of that, many power-five conference teams are angling for his services. He likes the Illini coaches but Washington and Texas Tech likely will be tough to beat.
- Evan Fairs, Richmond (Texas) Foster: The Maryland commit has reopened his commitment and has recently received offers from Illinois and Kansas. He is tall and long with the speed to be a downfield threat. Fairs might be the Illini's best chance at an impact wideout.
- Brandon Benson, Waco (Texas) La Vega: The SMU commit is expected to visit Illinois this month. He's another long player who can stretch the field.
- Joseph Ward, Waco (Texas) Midway: Ward doesn't have a long offer list and isn't that big (5-foot-10, 160 pounds) but he has speed to burn. If Illinois doesn't hit on the above targets, the staff may focus on Ward.
This might be the Illini's weakest position long-term due to reliance on junior college transfers in previous classes. Caleb Reams has a nice blend of athleticism and strength (even if you'd like him to be an inch or two taller), but the Illini need a longer, bigger target who can also add physicality in the run game.
- Dylan Soehner, Praire Grove (Ark.): Many are recruiting the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Arkansas native as an offensive lineman, but he wants to play tight end, and Illinois wants him as a tight end. Iowa State recently offered as well, so the Illini may battle former assistant Alex Golesh for Soehner.
- Zarrian Holcombe, Houston (Texas) Summer Creek: The 6-foot-5 tight end has the full package -- he's a refined pass catcher and willing blocker with the frame to add strength -- and an impressive offer list. But the former Texas A&M commit reopened his commitment and has already planned an official visit to Illinois on Jan. 15. He'd be a late steal.
- Blake Williams, Mustang (Okla.): Based on his talent and size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), Williams should be one of the best remaining tight ends in the country. But a health issue kept him out for his junior season and kept the offers away. He played well this season and if the health issue is contained -- a big if for most programs -- he could be a steal for somebody.
- If a scholarship opens up, Illinois would like to add a running back to add depth. They'd take a special smaller back but would prefer a bigger back who could also play linebacker, if needed.
- Darius Anderson, Richmond (Texas) George Ranch: The former Mizzou commit is a special runner. He's has good speed and athleticism, but it's his vision and cutting ability that stand out as elite. Ricker has a relationship with Anderson and hoped to lock up a visit. But Anderson is blowing up, most recently receiving offers from Alabama and TCU.
- Tre Nation, Leeds (Ala.): Nation is a tough, big (5-foot-10, 220-pound) back who would complement the Illini's current quicker backs. He likely could switch over to linebacker if needed. Cincinnati and Louisville currently look like the top competition. Expect Illinois to get an official visit this month.
- Sam Brodner, Glenbard West: The Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year really is 2B to Nation's 2A. He's just a good football player, who could help Illinois in one area or another. The former Vanderbilt commit could be a bruising running back, a hard-hitting linebacker or a special teams star. Regardless, he'd help Illinois as a player, a leader and a buzz recruit. Wisconsin and Syracuse are the top competition, but Illinois will host the in-state prospect this month.
You guys won't hold me to this, right? Great. I knew you'd be reasonable when these predictions are sure to go wrong.
- Offensive line: Tre'Vour Simms, Mike Willaims and Trystan Castillo
- Wide receiver: Evan Fairs
- Tight end: Blake Williams
- Running back: Kentrail Moran flips to Syracuse, and Illinois lands Tre Nation