Three decades ago, California native Mike White brought a lot of Cali flavor to Illinois. White, previously the Cal head coach with other stints with Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, immediately brought some fellow Californians with him -- with great success.
In his one season at Illinois, Anaheim native Dave Wilson set the then-NCAA single-game record with 621 passing yards (against Ohio State).
Junior college quarterback and Blythe, Calif., native Tony Eason helped Illinois finish third in the NCAA in passing yardage in 1981. The next season, he broke multiple NCAA passing records before becoming the 12th overall selection in the 1983 NFL Draft.
Livermore, Calif., native Jack Trudeau kept the Cali pipeline flowing and eventually set the Illini career passing record (8,725 career passing yards), a record that stands today.
Eason's favorite target in 1983 and Trudeau's No. 1 target in 1984-85 was David Williams, a Los Angeles native who still holds most of Illinois' receiving records.
But when White was dismissed in 1987 that pipeline of talent from the West Coast dried up quickly. Three decades later, new Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson is trying to re-open it.
The Los Angeles native, University of California great, five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and former Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland) high school coach parked in The Golden State during the spring evaluation period. He's a star there, but can he bring up-and-coming stars to Illinois? Scout.com director of recruiting and West region manager Brandon Huffman weighs in.
Brandon Huffman, director of recruiting/West region manager
Opportunity: Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State have long recruited the West Coast and in-state, so has Northwestern. Illinois, save a few players here and there, have never really recruited the region. But with a name head coach in Lovie Smith, a familiar name in both the Bay Area as a high school coach and college player and in Southern California as a prep star in Hardy Nickerson, there has never been a better time for the Illini to try to recruit the West and start to make an imprint in the region. Hardy Nickerson is one of the top players to ever come out of Los Angeles, he starred at Cal and had great success at Bishop O’Dowd HS in Oakland. So he covers two of the more important regions in the state of California.
Challenges: Michigan and Nebraska have been recruiting the region forever, and Urban Meyer has accelerated the pursuit of prospects from the West since he’s been in Columbus. To a West Coast kid, when they hear Big Ten schools, they think of Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska, schools who’ve each won a national title in the last 20 years and had West Coast kids be big contributors on those teams. For Illinois to move on to the mind of West Coast kids, they’ll need to have some immediate success under Lovie Smith to know that Illinois will be a team to consider seriously long-term.
Keys to success: Winning. See above, the Big Ten programs who’ve succeeded in the West have won. Even when Wisconsin picked up their recruiting in the West under Gary Andersen, they did so coming off a few consecutive Rose Bowl berths, so they had a track record of winning. That’s what will get Illinois from being just an offer to a Western kid to a school they’ll consider.
Intriguing prospect: Alijah Vera-Tucker He’s the top offensive lineman in Northern California. He also plays at Bishop O’Dowd HS, where Nickerson was the head coach before joining Lovie Smith in Tampa. Illinois offered him and started offering a slew of Bay Area kids, but Vera-Tucker is a player they’d have a shot with because he’s not set on staying in-state to play college ball, he’s plenty familiar and close with Nickerson and if there is one thing the Big Ten has done really well, it's recruit offensive lineman.