UI recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski: Illini out to find 'foundation pieces ... to the resurgence of Illinois'

Jeff Hecklinski knows how to be a Big Ten recruiting coordinator. He did it for four seasons under Brady Hoke at Michigan, helping the Wolverines recruit two top-five national recruiting classes. After spending one season at Colorado State-Pueblo, Hecklinski is back in the Big Ten as the Illinois tight ends coach and UI recruiting coordinator, taking over the role for offensive coordinator Ryan Cubit. Hecklinski caught up with Illini Inquirer to discuss Illinois football recruiting.

You’ve taken over as recruiting coordinator here. It’s something you’ve done in the past, so I assume you’re comfortable with it. What’s it like taking over?

Jeff Hecklinski: “I like it. I enjoy it. I enjoy the process of working with everybody and the organization part of it. (Director of football student-athlete development) Pat (Embleton) has been great. Pat’s an unbelievable worker. He’s got a lot of good ideas and he’s very organized. The staff’s an unbelievable recruiting staff. It’s a fun staff to be around. Nobody’s afraid to speak their mind and put their opinions out there. They’re not worried about getting their feelings hurt or anything like that. You can have honest discussions, which that’s really in the best interest of the program when you can talk about what’s really needed and what needs to happen.”

You have some staffers underneath you doing a lot of work, but what’s the most important duty of a recruiting coordinator?

Hecklinski: “It’s the constant evaluation of athletes and student-athletes and staying on top of it and then the following through part of it. That doesn’t fall on my shoulders as much as it with Pat and the eventual replacement for (director of player personnel) Scott Yielding (who left for a coaching position at The Citadel, his alma mater). The following through process is making sure there is constant communication between the student-athletes, the parents and us. To offer a scholarship is not the hard thing to do. It’s the following through of getting those families on campus and the constant communication so they feel like this is all a part of their process and making them understand and believe this is the place for them and the place for them to leave their son.”

Obviously, it’s a new-look staff with different parts. Has there been a big change to your focus or your priorities recruiting?

Hecklinski: “I don’t think so. I don’t think so one bit. We’ve all been a part of staffs where they’re new. This staff doesn’t operate that way. This staff operates as if they’ve been together for two or three years, which is unique. Now, some of is because they have. (Offensive line coach) A.J. (Ricker) and (defensive backs coach) Paul (Williams) worked for Bill before. But really when you look at it as a whole and when you look at it from where we first started on January 1, we operated that way from the get-go, which was unique. There really wasn’t any lapse in communication or trying to feel anybody out. Nobody really was territorial about anything, which really can hinder you or become an issue because really it was about what was best for the program and really not what’s best for the individual. That’s how you operate as a team. It takes everybody. That’s what Bill really feels is important. It takes everyone in this program to recruit one individual. It was nice for Bill to say that because that’s where I came from and what I grew up in. It’s exciting to be a part of that again.”

You mentioned some people have been with Bill before. Is that the main reason it’s different with most new staffs or why do you think it’s different here right now?

Hecklinski: “I think common goals, like-minded individuals. Nobody’s worried about ‘their’ guys or nobody’s worried about ‘I recruited this, or I, I, I, I, I.’ It’s more ‘we’ and how ‘we’ are going to do it and what ‘we’ need, what’s best for the program. That’s about football as a team. Football as a whole is the ultimate team game. It takes eleven guys working together on the field working as one to be successful. But the disconnect happens in that we expect that on the field, but we operate differently off the field.”

Meaning you ten (assistants) need to be on the same team.

Hecklinski: “Exactly. Exactly. And not just the ten, but you got all the alternative personnel that’s around. From a recruiting standpoint, from the first person they see when they walk in the door, the first person they see, the first minute that they’re here, everybody has to be on the same page. If we are, then it’s going to be organized, it’s going to operate for the best interest in the student-athlete and it’s going to put them in position to be successful. That’s working as a team. We have to work as a team off the field just as hard as we work as a team on the field.”

Obviously, you want more in-state prospects than you’ve had in the past. What’s the biggest goal in Illinois? Obviously, people have said they’ve want to build a fence around the state. That’s not realistic. How do you attack the state?

Hecklinski: “It’s not realistic, because ultimately the decision comes down to the student-athlete and their families. We don’t make these decisions for them. They make these decisions. Some student-athletes, some of the young men want to leave the state. They want to go out and experience something. That’s their choice. That’s their prerogative. That’s what they’re searching for right now. Some have a deep love for the University of Illinois. It’s our job to sort through all that. It’s our our job to sort through academically who fits, the academic profile that needs to be successful here and athletically who’s going to fit offensively and defensively from a toughness standpoint, from a skill standpoint, from a length and size standpoint and a mentality standpoint. You got a lot of factors that are going through it. And once we do that, being able to then attract them to come on campus and show them the plan we have laid out for them from both in the classroom and on the field and then a life after football standpoint in what’s going to happen with your life after football.

"When you do that now, there’s going to be a core set of prospects from this state and it’s got to start in this state. Then everything branches out from here. You exhaust every avenue with every prospect and every student-athlete that’s in the state and then it branches out. Then as kids start to make their decisions some will be for us and some will be against us. That’s no different than going out on Saturday. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. There are no ties. That’s the same thing in recruiting. You have to have a plan so that if something doesn’t go our way, there’s no lapse in time. There’s no rush to judgments. The plan’s already in place. The next wave is all ready to go, and it moves smoothly and transitions smoothly. That’s what you saw in January, up until Saturday. Hopefully now with 12 months to recruit, you’re going to see it work even better and more efficiently.”

In 2017, this staff gets a whole year to recruit a class and develop relationships with these kids. What’s kind of the goal of this staff with this class and what kind of impact do you envision this class having on the program?

Hecklinski: “I think the last class and this class have a chance to really be the foundation pieces and the corner pieces to the resurgence of Illinois. That’s going to coincide with the young men that are here and have put their blood and sweat into it already. We have to reinforce our young men that are here now that are working here with the ‘16 class and the ‘17 class because the young men that are here are passionate, hard-working, dedicated, hard-nosed, tough. They want to do things right. They want to win, and they want to win for Illinois. So from that standpoint, being able to bring in not only like-minded individuals into the program and now increase the talent and competition level at each position. That’s how things become great. That’s how things become special when you do that. This class becomes very important now to help reinforce and help the guys that are here and that are currently in the process of resurrecting Illinois. Now, we need to reinforce them and bring in reinforcements to back them up and also create more competition.”

Overall, is there generally a different kind of athlete you’re looking for in this class?

Hecklinski: “I don’t think so, no. The obvious answer is we’re looking for the best athlete but sometimes the best athlete doesn’t fit the other profiles that need to be here at the University of Illinois to be successful. We’re one of the best academic universities in the country. We need to stop hiding from that, and we need to start recruiting to that. We need to be proud of that. We need to recruit to that. We need to use that to our advantage because there are enough football players that tough, hard-nosed, that are academic-oriented that want to play in the Big Ten. We need to go find them. If they’re in this state, great. If that’s not what they want and they want to pursue something else, then we need to leave no stone unturned finding those 20-25 guys every year that fit us as a whole.”

Obviously, people talk about the challenges you face. How do you attack those and what are those challenges?

Hecklinski: “Look, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, there are challenges. There are challenges everywhere. There is no 100 percent perfect position. There is no 100 percent perfect job. There is no 100 percent perfect decision. There’s none of that. So we need to stop worrying about that. We need to really look at it from an individual basis and an individual perspective. So let’s say, ‘OK, the challenges, they’re going to be there regardless. Don’t tell me what the challenges are. Don’t sit here and tell me what the problems or the issues are. Let’s talk about what the solutions are going to be. Let’s talk about how we’re going to bridge that gap and quit looking at the negatives and start accentuating and focusing on the positives.’ Because the positives outweigh the negatives here.”

What’s spring mean for recruiting?

Hecklinski: “It’s the lifeblood. Look, if you’re not recruiting, then you’re falling behind. Every day that if we’re not recruiting to the best of our abilities as a staff, then somebody else is. Somebody else is finding a way to attract the individuals that they need into their program. We got to be the ones that people start talking about saying, ‘Hey, those guys work. Those guys work. They’re on the right student-athletes before anyone else is because their evaluation process, their communication process puts them in line to be first.’ How that filters itself out? Who knows? Some of that we don’t determine. Some of that we’re not in control of. But what we can be in control of is our daily work and our daily grind to getting to the kids and getting the kids here.”

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