Bill Cubit's revamped Illinois football staff, which came together just after New Year's Day, didn't have much time to revamp its recruiting approach for the Feb. 3 Signing Day. Yet, in just a month, the Illini landed 14 of its 23 eventual signees.
With 12 months to prepare for the next Signing Day, the Illinois staff has time to settle into its desired approach for the Class of 2017.
So what will be different in 2017?
The Illini are prioritizing in-state prospects, much like Tim Beckman's staff. But Cubit's staff seems more proactive about offering in-state prospects. Instead of looking for something better elsewhere, the Illini chose to get in early with offers to most almost all of the state's three-star prospects. The belief is that previous staffs waited too long to offer some of these prospects -- say, those ranked Nos. 11-35 in the state -- and by the time they chose to get back in, it was too late. The Illini are trying to build longer, stronger relationships in an in-state class that is much stronger and deeper than the Class of 2016.
Most of the in-state prospects visited for a Junior Day a few days before Signing Day. Several more have visited over the past month. The staff plans on a big recruiting day on March 12, the second day of spring practice. The staff has already received RSVPs from a handful of top in-state targets and hopes to host a few dozen more.
Outside the state of Illinois, the Illini staff continues to make a push into Texas (offering several prospects on Monday), Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan and Georgia. But Illinois also plans a push into Alabama, a state where non-Alabama and non-Auburn prospects seem more willing to move away from home than Florida and Texas.
Illinois also is selling to prospects that "the offer means something." They want every offer to be committable, unlike some staffs, to prove their desire for their targets.
Most teams want the fastest and the most athletic, but Illinois also is prioritizing length. The thought? Coaches can to a point make players stronger and even faster, but they can't make them longer.
Illinois currently has a deep board of dozens of prospects it currently considers their top priorities, hoping to land a dozen or more of them by Feb. 2017. But it also has a deep list of dozens of next-tier prospects to evaluate and pursue over the spring, summer and fall.
Following is the first edition of the Illini Football Class of 2017 Trending Meter.
St. Charles North offensive tackle Isaac Hawn visited the Illini four times already and is expected to visit again in March. Hawn also has visited several other programs recently, including Miami (Ohio), Illinois State, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, NC State and Duke. But Illinois' early efforts and its strong academics are helping the Illini stick out.
Peoria is known for sending Illinois some great basketball talent, but it's been a while since the central Illinois city sent the Illini a difference-making football player. Peoria wideout Jamir Whitelow has the chance to end that streak. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver caught 60 passes for 858 yards as a junior and received an Illini offer on National Signing Day. Western Michigan also has offered, but he grew up watching Illinois and Nathan Scheelhaase, now a UI assistant, so the Illini seem to have a great chance. Whitelow will visit Illinois again this month.
Illinois already landed a commitment from one of the three in-state three star defensive tackles, Ryan O'Malley. In an effort to land another one, the Illini recently offered Rich Central defensive tackle Caylon May. Illinois is his first Big Ten offer and first power-five offer.
One of the few Scout 300 prospects from the state with whom Illinois seems to have a real chance, Brother Rice wideout Ricky Smalling has visited Illinois mulitple times, most recently for a Junior Day. He is a priority for the Illini, who are looking for real difference-makers in their pass-heavy offense. Also, Smalling is tight with fellow four-star in-state receiver Isaiah Robertson. Expect the Illini to sell the two on playing together as a dynamic duo.
After rushing from 1,917 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior at Nazareth Academy, Oswego (Ill.) East running back Ivory Kelly-Martin has experienced a spike in recruiting interest. Illinois offered in February, though Wisconsin was the first Big Ten school to offer. Arizona also recently offered, and others will soon join the party. Illinois is in a solid spot and hope to get him on campus soon, but this will be a competitive recruitment.
Recently, Marist linebacker Micah Awodiran received an offer from Illinois and attended the UI for a junior day. He also has offers from Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa State, Syracuse and some MAC and Ivy League programs. Awodiran's sister attends Illinois. The Illini have a good chance, as long as a huge offer (Notre Dame?) doesn't come.
Illinois is sitting well with out-of-state wide receiver Mac Hippenhammer. The Illini are his only Big Ten offer. WIth Purdue struggling, the Illinois staff is trying to make a bigger push into Indiana and Hippenhammer would help that effort.
St. Thomas Aquinas running back Mike Epstein remains committed to Illinois but after missing last season with a knee injury, Epstein has seen an uptick of big interest, receiving offers from Michigan, West Virginia and Syracuse. Illinois will continue to recruit Epstein hard, hoping Epstein stays loyal. But it will be tough to hold onto him if the big boys keep calling.
Illinois was the first Big Ten program to offer Lake Park defensive lineman Jacub Panasiuk, but they weren't the last. Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State have joined the club and interest in Panasiuk will continue to grow.
East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas, the top uncommitted prospect in the state and a top-50 national recruit, is a game-changing talent who Illinois would love on the field. But Thomas has huge academic questions that may not only hurt Illinois but all the powers who have offered, including Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Four-star Maine South guard Kevin Jarvis is blowing up. He now has offers Michigan, Michigan State and Auburn. It'll be tough for the Illini to keep him in state.