Werner's Whits: Lovie Smith's Illini staff finally hits the recruiting trail

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down the Illini staff's priorities as they hit the recruiting trail this spring

The Illinois coaches finally hit the recruiting trail on Wednesday, and they'll have an extra hop in their step. Due to the coaching change, Illinois' Class of 2017 efforts had stalled for more than a month, while its Big Ten rivals rolled on. But commitments from four-star Brother Rice receiver Ricky Smalling and Bolingbrook athlete Kendall Smith finally pushed the ball forward for Illini recruiting. A four-star prospect and a solid in-state prospect told the recruiting world, especially in-state prospects, that it's OK to hop on board for and have faith in a new era of Illinois football.

Smalling could be a big domino. First of all, he's a four-star recruit. Illinois hasn't landed many four-star, top-10 in-state recruits in recent seasons -- Aaron Bailey in 2013 and Dre Brown and Gabe Megginson in 2015 -- Kentrail Moran also committed at this time last year but was an academic casualty. That 2015 duo helped Illinois land its best recruiting class (a top-half Big Ten class) since 2009. Smalling is a good start to helping Illinois finish far from the bottom of the Big Ten rankings in 2017. Second, he's a ringleader. He helped gather many of the recruits who have showed up on campus in recent months. Smalling's commitment could help open the door for other Chicago-area recruits, including DB Juawan Treadwell (who visited Tuesday as well), DT John Mitchell, LB Micah Awodiran, DE Olalere Oladipo and DT Caylon May. Smalling may help push some of those dominoes, possibly sooner rather than later.

Smith gets the Illini back into Bolingbrook. Under coach John Ivlow, the Raiders are established as one of the state's better programs and producers of Division I talent. Current Illini defensive tackle Rob Bain is from Bolingbrook, as was Bailey -- and Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit's handling of Bailey didn't go over so well. The Illini missed out on 2017 DE Izayah Green-May, who committed to Wisconsin last week. But it's good for Illinois to get another power-five talent from the Raiders.

Lovie still can't burst through doors -- not yet. NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from going on the road during the spring evaluation period -- it's dubbed the "Saban rule" because the rule was instituted in 2008 to limit the tireless Alabama coach's recruiting efforts -- so Lovie is froced to remain on campus. That's a bummer for Illinois, which would love to get Lovie in high schools and prospects' homes. "That's a rule I don't like, of course," Smith said Tuesday. "Especially when you're a new guy, you'd like to get out there. I'll be around here hanging out with our players." Smith will have individual meetings with players in the coming weeks and should wrap up the rest of  his recruiting staff as well.

The Illini will continue to prioritize Chicago, the rest of the state and St. Louis. Each coach will recruit the state. Three will focus in Chicago: Luke ButkusTim McGarigle and Garrick McGee. The Illini will try to hit almost every metropolitan area in the state over the coming weeks, including Rockford, Bloomington, Peoria, Decatur and Springfield.

The Illini will familiarize themselves with their recruiting territories as well.  Of course, they will recruit Florida and Texas. Everyone should. They are the two biggest hotbeds of talent. Lovie obviously has ties to both. He's from Big Sandy, Texas, and owns a mansion in Tampa.

The Illini also will delve deeper into Georgia and AlabamaWhile many schools rush in to get the leftovers from Florida and Texas, not as many rush into Georgia and Alabama. Alabama and Auburn won't get every power-five prospect in their state, and there seems to be a tendency for Alabama recruits to be more willing to travel far away from home for college. Same goes for Georgia, a talent-rich state with just two power-five programs: Georgia and Georgia Tech.

The Illini will be on the trail for most of the month. But then will return home to host some camps which will give them even more of an opportunity to evaluate prospects in person.

The Illini are behind in the Class of 2017. Smith completed his staff in mid- to late-March, and the coaches arrived during a quiet period. They're four months behind other new staffs and a year or two behind established programs in recruiting the Class of 2017. The Illini are chasing four programs in the Big Ten West -- sorry, Minnesota (an equal at this point) and Purdue (yikes) -- and they're far behind all in 2017: Northwestern (12 commits), Nebraska (7 commits), Iowa (10 commits), Wisconsin (9 commits). The Illini must establish relationships quickly and cash in on them quickly. Still, the Lovie buzz gives the Illini a much higher ceiling in 2017 and likely a much higher floor. In other words, even if Illinois never fully catches up in 2017, I highly doubt the Illini finish 12th among Big Ten recruiting classes.

While most of the focus will be on 2017, the Illini will put in a lot of work on the classes of 2018 and 2019 over the next month. They're on an even playing field (or timeline) for these classes, so '18 and '19 will give us a much better idea of what this staff can accomplish on the recruiting trail. But at least they're officially off to a solid start in 2017.

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