Fact or fiction: Illini football will sign a top-40 class in 2017.
Ryan Easterling, recruiting reporter
Fiction. But they’ll come close.
Lovie Smith finally gives Illinois some real credibility and relevance in football, but I just don’t know that it’s as instant in the recruiting realm as it is in the PR realm. They’re off to a good start in landing a must-get recruit in Ricky Smalling. Holding on to RB Mike Epstein through Signing Day would be huge.
But as we’ve discussed before at Illini Inquirer, the timing of Lovie’s hire as far as recruiting goes wasn’t the best. To be fair, Lovie wasn’t even on the market until late January when Tampa Bay let him go, but hiring a coach in early March put he and his staff behind other schools from the get-go.
This year would have been tough for Lovie regardless in-state.Getting Smalling is huge for the program. I’ve seen Smalling play in three games and have seen him at a handful of camps otherwise. He’s a baller.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1669957-illini-recruiting-lo... Otherwise, much of the other top in-state talent was already picked over by the time he got on the job. A.J. Epenesa, a top-25 player nationally and the No. 1-ranked DE in the country who just so happens to be an Iowa legacy, was already off the board. Jeff Thomas, an electric DeSean Jackson type receiver in Scout’s top-50, named a top six school list that didn’t include Illinois. Isaiah Robertson, who strongly considered Illinois and visited just before Lovie was hired, couldn’t turn down an offer from Notre Dame.
Since taking the Illinois job, Lovie has focused on Illinois. But unlike Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, Lovie has really honed in on he and his staff’s connections to talent-rich states such as California, Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Alabama instead of trying to duke it out with other Midwest powers in already saturated states like Ohio.
Putting things in perspective, Illinois’ highest-rated class in the last five years came in 2015 when the Illini signed a trio of four-star prospects in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Gabe Megginson, and Dre Brown. That class finished 37th nationally in the Scout team recruiting rankings.
So, while I think Illinois falls just short of signing a top-40 class in 2017, here are a few things they would need to do to get there if they can indeed pull it off.
First, they need to finish strong with the guys in state that are still considering them. Yes, I’m talking about guys like Micah Awodiran and Olalere Oladipo. Awodiran is the exact type of recruit Illinois needs to have. Good student, good football player, good kid in general. Oladipo, also a great student, is a defensive lineman from in-state with other P5 offers. You need to get guys like that. Throw in guys like Crete-Monee teammates Juawan Treadwell and John Mitchell and you take care of the home state.
But where they really can and need to cash in is with that second tier of recruits in states like Cali, Texas, Florida, and Alabama. The Illini have distributed a slew of offers in the south and out west lately. It can be debated, no doubt, that three-star recruits from some states are more college ready and are better college prospects than three-star recruits from other states. Those states listed above tend to churn out talent year in, year out. Cashing in with guys from those states would help build up depth of talent on the roster that the program really needs.
One state to keep an eye on is Indiana. Notre Dame will always be a contender for the cream of the crop in Indiana, but the Indianapolis area produces more talent than it’s sometime given credit for. Illinois is looking to capitalize on an often-overlooked Indianapolis territory that is ripe with talent.
Will Illinois sign a top-40 class in 2017? My gut tells me no. But I don’t think it will be very long before they start doing so regularly, possibly even as early as 2018.
Jeremy Werner, publisher
Sorry to be a wet blanket, Illini fans, but I'll also side on fiction -- but barely.
This one's tough because I think it's going to be really close. The Illini's sheer quantity of scholarships in the class (25) could help put them over the top too if they land mostly three-star prospects. I will say this. The days of finishing in the 60s and 70s of the national recruiting rankings are done for a while.
Just for some context, here are the Illini's recruiting rankings since 2009.
Illini recruiting rankings
|2016||60th||12th (of 14)|
|2012||68th||11th (of 12)|
|2011||40th||8th (of 11)|
Illinois recruiting efforts immediately improved when Lovie Smith was hired, but recruiting in the Big Ten didn't just automatically become easy. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and now Michigan State won't stop landing top-25 recruiting classes. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern didn't just get worse. Actually, each of those Big Ten West programs currently is in the top-25 of the early team recruiting rankings right now. Heck, even Rutgers and Maryland are off to good starts in 2017.
What Lovie's hire did is raise Illinois above the bottom of the barrel in the Big Ten. Lovie's staff has been here for just two months, but there's still a lot of work to do to lift the Illini over their other Big Ten West rivals.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1666520-trending-meter-illin... Illinois arrived a year behind most of their competitors who have been recruiting these 2017 prospects since at least last spring. As Easterling mentioned, the state's pool of no-doubt Big Ten prospects is pretty dried up. And make no mistake, the state of Illinois is still where Illinois sets its foundation. If Illinois can't recruit its state consistently, it's going to be an inconsistent program (see the Zook years) even if it adds some good talent from some out-of-state "pipelines."
I agree that the recruitments of Oladipo and Awodiran are crucial. Smalling and Kendall Smith gave Illinois a start (holding onto Epstein may prove difficult though not impossible). Now, the Illini need more. Oladipo has offers from Michigan State, Penn State and Missouri, among several others. But Illinois has recruited him as hard as anyone (so has Indiana). Awodiran has offers from Mizzou, Maryland, Indiana and Iowa State, among several others, but the state school and Lovie should be a sell for the Marist linebacker. These are recruitments Illinois too often has lost recently. The Illini need to win these types of recruitments if its to take the next step. Also, guys like Treadwell, Mitchell, QB Cam Thomas and TE Logan Christopherson can help set the bar in the state and create some good vibes.
Like Zook, the Illini are shooting for the out-of-state stars early. They're offering a lot of prospects they probably won't land. There's nothing wrong with that. You can't get great players if you don't recruit them. But the hope is that they don't repeat the mistake previous Illini coaches have made: slow-balling solid in-state prospects for the slight chance to land higher-ranked out-of-state prospects. Previous coaches have assumed those in-state prospects would maintain some in-state loyalty (it doesn't exist) late into the recruiting process. It's something to watch this fall.
But I do think Lovie's out-of-state recruiting will be a boost for the Illini in 2017. Cubit hit Florida hard, and Beckman's staff had started to prioritize Texas. But those coaches had to introduce themselves to recruits who probably didn't know their name or face. Smith walks into a high school in Florida, Texas, Chicago and St. Louis as a celebrity. And while he doesn't seem like it during his media appearances, Smith is a smooth recruiter who should be able to make a huge impression on recruits -- and probably an even greater impression on their parents.
Does Illinois need to win in 2017 to land a great class? It wouldn't hurt, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary. Zook landed some great recruiting classes after two 2-win seasons to start his Illinois career. A bowl bid in Lovie's first season would just make the sell of the future -- Illinois is a big rebuild job, which you'll likely see during the 2017 season -- easier.
Illinois' recruiting will take a step forward in 2017. It's a possibility that the class ranks in the top-40 (I really considered going "fact" here). Illinois coaches would tell you that top-40 classes are the expectation, and I do expect them to add a solid class.
Some thought Lovie would instantly bring top-25 recruiting classes. Eventually, he likely will bring in a few of those. But it's not easy, especially given the timing of the hire, recent struggles of Illinois and the competition in the Big Ten.
I'm very bullish on 2018, though, when the Illini will have deeper and longer connections.