Illini director of player personnel Josh Sternquist: 'We've had to play a little catch up'

Following stints at Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico, Belvidere, Ill., native now is the point man for the Illini's recruiting efforts under Lovie Smith. The Illinois football director of player personnel talked with IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner about how he will operate the expanded Illini recruiting department and the staff's strategy for bringing in talent.

Congratulations on the gig and welcome back to the state. Obviously, coming back to Illinois draws you, but what did it mean to get this job?

Josh Sternquist: "It meant everything. For me, growing up in the state of Illinois, I always took pride in where I grew up and everything that comes with being an Illinois person. We got the cold winters, the nice falls and of course we can have hot or cold springs. There's just kind of a certain thing that's inside you that comes from being an Illinois person. Growing up, I watched the Illini. For me, it's a personal job. I've said that a couple of times. This is not just a professional thing. There's a lot of state pride in me, so I'm glad to be home."

What's prepared you most to run this Illini recruiting department?

Sternquist: "Well, I think I've had great mentors. Working at the University of Wisconsin for Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema, you see a different kind of framework for how they do things. At Wisconsin back then, they didn't win a lot of games with four- and five-star guys. They've won a lot of games with guys who fit their system. The perfect guys, the up-front offensive linemen, the tough guys. Then moving on to Minnesota, working under coach (Tim) Brewster and coach (Jerry) Kill. Coach Brewster is one of the top recruiters in the country. He's at Florida State right now. He has a proven track record of being a great recruiter. I learned some great things on how to get the big guy, to get the big guys on campus and keep them and get them committed. Then Coach Kill, just the leadership skills he had and what he did at Minnesota. Then the last four or five years that I've had with Bob Davie. He was the head coach at Notre Dame. We all know Notre Dame is a stellar program, of course, but I had an opportunity to learn under him in a different circumstance in the Mountain West Conference at New Mexico. So my mentors have been great. I think I'm ready to go now, and I'm going into my 13th season recruiting in Division I."

Who's Illinois most like of that group? Going for the big guys or going for the solid guys who fit your system?

Sternquist: "You know, I think we're a mold of all of them. I think Coach (Lovie) Smith is going to be looking for guys who fit his system, but at the same time, the star systems do have an aspect to the recruiting process. There's something that applies there. You look at some of the young men who have had high stars, those kids have gone on to have stellar careers. But there's also some guys who've had two stars or three stars who have had unbelievable careers in college and the NFL. I think we fit somewhere in between there. I think we're going to find the right kids who fit our system and hopefully those guys are being evaluated on par with how we evaluate them."

You're a big part of a chance to Illinois in the way they have their recruiting staff set up. We're used to the traditional way of there being a recruiting coordinator on the coaching staff and he has just a few people working underneath him who help with the organization. Can you explain how college football is changing to where college have a player personnel department like the NFL and putting more staffers in the recruiting process?

Sternquist: "I think the process has changed so much. I think that coaches have so many things they have to check now on top of their coaching duties. The social media, compliance is amped up as well and the academic requirements. I think that at some point, there had to be some support staff that stepped up and helped these coaches. I think it's just snowballed. I think certain schools have kind of been on the forefront of pushing, pushing and pushing for bigger and larger staffs. This is a business of the battle of the Joneses. From facilities to staffs, you have to keep up. I think Coach Smith, that's his philosophy. We have to have the staff that other teams that are recruiting have 20 to 30 people in their personnel staff. We need to have the same thing. We need to be on the same level playing field as those teams to help us win some of these recruiting battles."

How many will be in your department?

Sternquist: "Well, right now as Coach said ... right now it's me (Pat) Embleton, I have a couple other people working under us. I think the end game is to have anywhere from 15 to 20 people in the department, working in different areas, different fields and different levels of being involved."

How does this operate? Do you do all the background work and hand it to the staff? How does this process work between the recruiting department and the coaching staff?

Sternquist: "I think most of our labor is going come from data and getting video for our coaches. Our main job is to make our coaches' jobs very easy, very efficient. As soon as they turn a young man's name on in the system for our video, they know exactly what they need to know about them. They know about the social media, his cell phone, his e-mail, all the stuff they need to make a quick jump from a video to, 'Hey, I need to call this guy,' or 'Hey, I need to hit this guy on Twitter.' So our job's going to be to gather information and just efficiently make sure our guys, it's A to B for them. It's not, 'I have to go get this information,' or 'I have to call this high school coach.' Everything is laid out in front of them so their days are efficiently run."

How big of a change is that from when the coaches had to do all of that on top of all their coaching?

Sternquist: "Oh, yeah. Think of how recruiting has gone. Imagine coming in from spring practice and you have to get information on, 'Hey, I want to Twitter this kid but I don't have his info.' Coming in from practice now, everything is laid out for them. It allows them to maybe watch a little bit more film, and it also allows them to more efficiently recruit kids. And when they're talking to the kids, they have all their information: their track times, anything that would maybe be an additional piece of information that would be important."

How's Lovie Smith on social media?

Sternquist: "Oh, man. You'd be surprised. Coach Smith, he loves recruiting. He's been a complete pleasure to work with. I'm excited for the future. It was for me to see the Twitter thing pop up when he was first hired. Because when Lovie was hired, trust me, I was looking for his Twitter too. Coach has got his one-liners and stuff. He's doing a good job with his Twitter."

I've kind of buried this, but how did you get this job? What was the connection to Lovie and how did he find you?

Sternquist: "You know, I think a lot of things happened at the right time. Some things came together and some people I'd known, who I didn't know knew coach (Smith), kind of came to the forefront. Next thing I know, on Monday -- this is about three weeks ago now -- I get a phone call from Northbrook, Illinois. I'm like, 'OK, do I got to take this call?' I finally take it, and sure enough, it's Coach Smith. I'm glad I took it. You get so many phone calls in a day and it's a number I didn't recognize. We talked and about a week and a half later, I was on my way to Champaign for an interview. It was a quick turnaround. I interviewed on Tuesday. I got back to Albuquerque on Wednesday. Coach offered me the job on Wednesday around 2-2:30 (p.m.) and I flew back the very next day for the high school coaches clinic here in Illinois."

That's a whirlwind and I know you guys are in a whirlwind right now. There's a few holdovers in Pat Embleton and Nina Baloun in the recruiting department and a couple coaches who have been at Illinois for a little bit. But what's this transition been like the last few weeks? How much have you been able to get done?

Sternquist: "Quite a bit. Quite a bit. Like coach has said numerous times, we've had to play a little catch up. We got in here a little late, but our staff is working late. We're making sure our guys hit the road, they're ready to go. It's kind of been phenomenal for me to see the kind of work ethic from all aspects. Nina's been here as early as 6:30 in the morning. She's working really hard. Pat as well. It's exciting. I think the buzz has been created from the spring (open practice) that we had. There's just a buzz in the community. It's tough for us to go home. We want to keep working. So I think in the last two weeks, we've made considerable leaps and bounds. I think we're pretty close to being caught up, and I think after this spring evaluation (period), we're going to be in really good shape."

When we talk about this 2017 class -- it seems like prospects are getting recruited younger and younger -- how do you catch up especially with all these other staffs on the road right now especially with you guys having another week of spring ball?

Sternquist: "Well, the main thing is trying to outwork, grind. That's been a word thrown around our office since I've been here. Our coaches are not only grinding in recruiting and grinding the football field. Just grind, outwork our opponent. Then the main thing is that when we're working on that '17 class, we got to start working on that '18 class as well. That's something that we've been diligently working on the side as we try to get this '17 class, but we got to make sure we're good on '18 too. It's been a grind. All we can do is catch up with the '17 class and make sure we're prepared and on par with everybody else when we start going with the '18 class."

What's been the response so far?

Sternquist: "Very positive. The buzz coming from the fans is very, very similar to what we're getting from our recruits. It's exciting. I think that the common thing is we've got to get kids on campus so they can see the new situation here, the new staff, the new way of doing things and continually get better. That's the big thing. You'll hear coach saying that at his press conference. We have to continually get better. It's never good enough. We have to continue to get better. There's been a lot of smiles when kids leave. That's been good for us. We just got to get them on campus."

Who resonates more: Lovie or Hardy Nickerson?

Sternquist: "You know what? I'll tell you a little story. When I walked through the door, I'm just like some of the kids and the fans. I saw Coach Smith, and I was kind of awestruck. I'm a big Bears fan. I grew up Bears. I remember being five years old and watching the Bears in the Super Bowl. But when I walked in and saw the "El Dragon" -- I don't know if you remember the Dennis Hopper commercial -- I was like, 'There's the dragon!' And I was like, 'Wow!' Tampa Bay Bucs. The Dragon. In person. Shaking his hand. Coach Nickerson's a really soft-spoken guy. Really nice. Real sincere. And then you turn on the highlights, and you're like, 'Wow!' It's been great. Both those guys, they hold their own."

I think this staff has a great potential. But I caution fans that it might not just be easy. It's going to be a process. It's going to take a lot of work. What are this staff's expectations early on as they get acquainted here?

Sternquist: "I think our expectations are that we will do what we can, to grind, to outwork and try our best to make the state and the alumni proud of the University of Illinois. When we go out there, we're working hard on the recruiting front. We're playing hard on the game field. When people walk away from the game, we want them be like, 'Wow. This team, they played their butts off. I'm so proud of them.' That's the goal as well in the recruiting process. We're going to have to play catch up. We're going to have to work very hard. But I'm hoping that when this is all said and done in February that our fans, our families and our alumni will be like, 'You know what? They really worked their butts off. I'm proud of this recruiting class. This is the foundation moving forward.'"

How do you balance building with the state prospects but also trying to just add the best overall prospects?

Sternquist: "Just to kind of tie it together, sometimes the best prospects are the state prospects -- the kids who love Illinois, have grown up here, maybe grew up watching the Illini. Sometimes, those are the best young men because they have something invested from the state. There's a state pride. There's an opportunity for family and friends to come to a game. I think that's definitely a tough balance. I don't think we'll ever be perfect at it. But I know coach has been very firm that we have a little triangle here with Chicago, Illinois, all the way to Indy to St. Louis and Central Illinois, Southern Illinois, the whole state of Illinois, there's enough prospects in this area to build a strong foundation on. It's going to be built on the back of local kids and then we'll complement some of our classes with some of our kids out of state."

Are there certain areas you'll really go after out-of-state? It seems like Florida, Texas and with Hardy, maybe California a little bit.

Sternquist: "Yeah, I think you're going to see where our coaches have ties. I think Tampa's an easy one with Coach Smith. He's also from Big Sandy, Texas. I think where our name, whether it's just the university or the coaches' names, are prevalent, we're going to be there. You have to kind of follow the alumni too. If you have alumni in Naples or wherever they may be, I think that's a good place because you have fans there who love U of I. We're going to find the spots that are going to be the hottest for U of I, and we're going to be in them. You definitely named in California, Texas, Florida, three of the (main) states for prospects."

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