Illini in the mix for RB Chase Hayden

Illini trying to lure another star running back out of Tennessee to be future feature back

The last time Illinois landed a premier running back out of Tennessee, it worked out pretty well for the Illini.

As a freshman last season, Nashville native Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a four-star signee in the Class of 2015, led Illinois with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Entering his sophomore season, he's the focal point of the Illini offense.

The new Illinois coaching staff is trying -- and at least for the moment, in the mix -- to land another franchise back from the Volunteer State. Colliersville (Tenn.) St. George's Chase Hayden recently trimmed his list to five, and to most recruiting observers, Illinois didn't look quite like the others.

How did Illinois get on a list with Southern stalwarts Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma State and South Carolina? By prioritizing Hayden.

"Really, I pretty much talk to their coaches every week," Hayden said. "I talk to (running backs coach Thad) Ward every couple days too, so they've developed a relationship with me, and they make me feel like a priority."

Illini head coach Lovie Smith's first FaceTime call during the spring evaluation period was a 12:01 a.m. call to Hayden.

"That was really big, showing me that I was the first guy that they did that to," Hayden said. "That was really big, pretty exciting."

Ward is in frequent contact with Hayden as well, and stopped by Hayden's school on Tuesday.

"He said just how they really need me and how much of a priority I am to them," Hayden said. "That's pretty much what they're selling, that I can come in, get some early playing time and that I'm really a priority for them."

Hayden participated at The Opening Regional in Chicago earlier this month and had the second highest Nike rating, accrued by four athletic tests, at the camp. He was invited to The Opening Finals next month in Oregon.

More importantly, The 5-foot-10, 185-pound back has dominated on the field. Hayden ran for 2,625 yards and 37 touchdowns as a junior and also caught 19 passes for 249 yards.

What's Hayden looking for in a program?

"I'm just looking for a place I can come in and compete early, a place that's pretty academically strong and a place that I feel I have a good relationship with the coaches," he said. the outside looking in, Illinois appears a longshot. While Hayden released his top five, that list is fluid. Florida recently offered and now is among his top considerations, he said. Other programs, like Michigan, also are showing interest.

Most assume Tennessee, where Hayden's father Aaron played running back in the 1990s -- Lovie Smith was on the staff for two of Aaron's years (1993-94) in Knoxville -- is the team to beat.

"I wouldn't say the team to beat," Chase Hayden said. "I probably got a couple teams to beat: Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida. Those are probably the main three."

So, Illinois certainly has some work to do. But Smith's staff so far has shown that's it not afraid to compete with some of the big boys.

What can help the Illini? Getting Hayden on campus for a visit, something he plans this summer.

"Probably just once I get on visit, just setting what campus looks like, see what the feel of Illinois is," Hayden said. "That's the probably the big thing is getting on campus and checking it out.

"I'm not exactly about the date, but I'll definitely get up there for a visit."

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