Illini Football Spring Scout: Wide receivers

Illini looking to add pro-style playmakers at wideout in 2017

IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner is breaking down each Illini football position group, what they're looking to add at each position in the Class of 2017 and their top targets.

First up was the quarterbacks. Followed by the running backs.

Now, let's look at the wide receiver.

What Illini have on roster

Like running back, this is a position that seemed to have great depth a year ago but now faces questions. Geronimo Allison is gone and Mike Dudek's future -- he seemed destined to re-write the Illini receiving record book -- now is uncertain following his second ACL tear in two years. The group also lost depth with the transfer of Marchie Murdock, an inconsistent but intriguing wideout.

The Illini still have some nice options.

Junior Malik Turner has the potential to be a star. He's big (6-foot-3), physical and one of the team's top athletes. He showed glimpses of No. 1 wideout capability at the end of last season.

Sophomore Desmond Cain is a reliable slot receiver and had a nice freshman season and solid athlete but needs to make more big plays.

Sophomore Sam Mays also has a high ceiling due to his height and athleticism. Some in the program last season called him "a G-Mo clone" due to his similarities to Allison.

Heading into 2017, the Illini will lose three seniors from their 2016 rotation: speedy senior Justin Hardee, quick-but-inconsistent Dionte Taylor and walk-on Zach Grant.

The last staff was really high on incoming freshman Dominic Thieman, who led Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in receiving over several other Division I wideouts. He's big, physical and athletic.

Fellow Floridian Mj McGriff is short but has the quick-twitch ability to make defenders miss in space, both in the passing and return game.

What Illini want in 2017

Illinois is off to a great start at wideout in the Class of 2017. The first two prospects to commit to Lovie Smith can play wide receiver.

Four-star Brother Rice prospect Ricky Smalling definitely will play receiver and has the talent of a future No. 1. He plays even bigger than his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame because of his superb strength and go-up-and-get-it ability. While he doesn't have elite speed and needs some seasoning, Smalling is a top producer and competitor.

The guy who committed simultaneously with Smalling, Kendall Smith, also can play receiver -- though he's more likely to play defensive back for the Illini. Smith needs to add some strength but he's a smooth athlete with good speed, body control and hands.

The Illini want to finish the class with three or four receivers, and Smith likely will be slotted as a defensive back. The focus will be on top athletes, but expect the Illini to focus on bigger, pro-style wideouts -- guys who can block in McGee's power-run offense and help move the chains.

Possible targets

Illini running backs coach Thad Ward has had the ear of Carmoni Green in recent weeks. 

"I talked to them almost every day," Green said. "Coach Ward and Coach Smith, I talk to them a lot. They say they're running a pro-style offense and that I could be big in that offense because that's the offense they run in the NFL. I think they're going to have a pretty good year this year and that Illinois is going to be one of the top programs in the country. I believe that. I like the coaching staff. It's like amazing. They're trying to get me up there. Coach Smith coached in the NFL for a couple years and the wide receivers coach coached in the NFL too, so that could be big."

Green said he hopes to eventually visit Illinois but others also are turning up the heat. Pitt and Oregon State recently offered. Green also claims a Florida offer and said Alabama is interested. Illinois seems to have gotten in early before he really takes off.

Kansas receiver Jafar Armstrong certainly has the mix of size and speed -- he's a star sprinter at Bishop Siege -- power-five teams are looking for. The previous Illini staff was the first power-five to offer, and Armstrong recently took an unofficial visit to take in an Illini spring practice. Illinois will further evaluate Armstrong, but he is starting to gain more interest, recently earning an offer from Kansas.

"I talked to (Illini wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker)," Armstrong told" He says he loves me. He says he's going to re-evaluate all the offers they made, and that he'll get back to me. He's an NFL-type coach, and he knows what he's talking about. It was good to sit down with him and talk to him more and pick his mind a little bit. He's absolutely a coach I'd love to play for."

Peoria Central wide receiver Jamir Whitelow visited Illinois last month.. Whitelow and his family grew up Illini fans. Watch Ryan Easterling's interview with Whitelow. Needless to say, the Illini seem like they could close the deal soon if they want. But the staff wants to see him work out at a camp this summer.

Illini coach Mike Phair recently dropped by Rochester and Stallworth is the powerhouse's best current prospect. The 6-foot-5 wideout currently has offers from Toledo and Central Michigan. He's a guy to watch during the summer camp circuit.

Scout's top-ranked in-state player has received comparisons to Tavon Austin due to his burst, agility and top-end speed. But Illinois did not make his cut to six schools: AlabamaMichigan StateFlorida StateAuburnTexas A&M and Missouri. Academics were a concern here and made Illinois a longshot. Regardless, Thomas is the type of talent that is hard to find.

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