Illini coach Lovie Smith making native Texas a recruiting priority

Illinois prioritizes prospects within a 200-mile radius, including the state, Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. But they're also focusing on four areas outside the region: Texas, Florida, Alabama and California. Over the next week,'s regional reporters weigh in on Illinois' opportunities, challenges and keys to success in each area and provide a few prospects to watch. Today, Gabe Brooks weighs in on the Illini's efforts in The Lone Star State.

Travel is expensive and time-consuming, especially when traveling from Champaign. If you're flying out of University of Willard Airport, you're likely connecting flights in Chicago. If you're flying direct, you likely have to drive at least two hours in another direction just to get to the airport.

But the previous Illinois staff realized a few years into its short stay in Champaign that Willard provided quick, direct (and relatively cheap) flights to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.every day. Why not take advantage of that direct line to a talent-rich state?

The Illini slowly built connections in the Lone Star State, signing WR Sam Mays and LB Justice Williams in 2015 and TE Zarrian Holcombe and OL Darta Lee in the Class of 2016.

The new Illini staff is prioritizing Texas from the start. And new head coach Lovie Smith's roots there -- his hometown is rural Big Sandy, about 110 miles east of Dallas -- should help.

Even though several schools drink from the deep talent pool in the state, there is enough to satisfy Illinois' thirst. Texas produced 459 FBS signees in 2015, 70 more than the No. 2 state Florida, so there are plenty of difference-making prospects available -- and a direct flight to the U of I for the recruits and their families to visit Illinois.

Furthering those efforts, the Illini will host two satellite camps in Texas next month: June 8 at Lancaster High School near Dallas and June 9 at Thurgood Marshall High School near Houston.

Continuing in our series of out-of-state recruiting priorities for the Illini, Texas recruiting analyst Gabe Brooks weighs in on the Illini's opportunity, challenges and keys to success in recruiting the Lone Star State and provides a few prospects to watch.


Gabe Brooks, Texas recruiting analyst

Opportunity: Recruiting Texas makes sense for Illinois for the same key reason it makes sense for almost any out-of-state school: there are about 400 FBS signees per cycle in Texas, so there are ample opportunities to target kids looking to play FBS-level ball. Almost the entire Pac-12 frequents Texas, as well as the SEC, which has really ramped up its focus on the Lone Star State since Texas A&M moved to the conference.

Another good reason for Illinois to target Texas is new head coach Lovie Smith. He's a native Texan for mostly-rural East Texas, a talent-rich region that stands out in Texas from a recruits-per-capita perspective. Think Earl Campbell, Adrian Peterson, Dez Bryant, and countless others during the past few decades. Illinois' efforts in Texas have usually been limited to Houston and Dallas -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- but having a native East Texan who is well-liked in his home region could help Illinois make progress in the Piney Woods.

Challenges: Along the same lines as the primary opportunity being that there are so many players, the primary challenge is that there are so many schools from across the country targeting them. Michigan went after a boatload of Texas kids in the 2016 class and didn't land any of them. Washington did the same and landed only one (though it was a big one, four-star top 150 defensive end Levi Onwuzurike). While there are high numbers of recruits, the competition for the majority of them is pretty fierce.

Additionally, the flip side of targeting kids from places such as East Texas is that historically those players don't go too far from home. While having Lovie may help in that regard, at face value, players from metro areas are often more likely to travel a long way from home to play rather than rural prospects.

Keys to success: This will sound cliché, but persistence is key. Personally, I see no reason for an out-of-state school to restrict itself when offering players in states such as Texas. Offer anyone and everyone you think can play Big Ten football. Eventually, you're gonna land one here and there, and that's the key. Making enough of an impression to create a familiarity with Texas high school football players and coaches.

Intriguing prospect: It's a bit too early to tell who might be the best bet for Illinois to land in Texas. But of the guys they've offered so far, a couple who I think are representative of the types of players the Illini should target down here are cornerback Kieston Roach and running back Trelon Smith. Illinois has offered numerous players in Greater Houston and these two are included. Roach plays for a perennial power -- the defending 6A Division I state champion, actually -- that produces a ton of talent. Those types of schools often send players to several different schools in a given cycle, sometimes far and wide geographically. Cedar Hill in the Dallas area is a great example of that. Smith is a good running back prospect with an offer list in the double digits who might get overlooked by the P5 programs closer to home, but could go to the Big Ten or Pac-12 and thrive in the right system.

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