Following the defection of senior starting linebacker T.J. Neal, Illinois needed to land an immediate impact linebacker in the Class of 2016.
On Monday, they made a big splash, landing Maryland linebacker De'le Harding -- the top prospect left on their board.
Harding, a former Michigan commit, chose the Illini over Rutgers. The difference appeared to be the academic focus. Harding and his parents were impressed with the Illini's pitch from academic advisers from the kinesiology department.
"They were blown away," said Dwayne Thomas, Harding's coach at Eastern Christian Academy. "They said it was neck and neck with the other things, the opportunity to play, the coaches, motivation and approaches. He thought they were very similar. He was just blown away by the academics."
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker will compete for immediate playing time for an Illini linebacking corps that lost three seniors to transfer, inclduing Neal, LaKeith Walls and B.J. Bello.
"Based on what they're saying, they said they're going to make him the No. 1 guy," Thomas said, "The defensive coordinator (Mike Phair) said he could play the middle in the Tampa-2 defense, but they can also see him doing other things as well, coming off the edge and rushing the passer. I think both schemes wanted to utilize him the same way."
Scout.com recruiting analyst Brian Dohn contributed to this report.
"Harding is best when playing downhill and moving between the tackles. He accelerates well toward the line of scrimmage and he has good body control. He needs to be better with his instincts toward the sideline and work on his coverage skills. Harding has the ability to play physical, and he runs well. He needs to work on his disengaging skills." -- Brian Dohn, Scout.com national recruiting analyst