Howard Watkins said he was "chilling in bed" when he received a Twitter notification that he had a new follower: Lovie Smith.
"I thought it was a fake account," Watkins said. "I clicked on it and it was really him."
From there, the relationship started to grow.
"He said he loved me as a player," Watkins said. "We talked and that was crazy for me. That how me and Illinois started to take off."
The Watkins and Illini relationship grew a little more earlier this month with the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain offensive lineman taking an unofficial visit to Illinois with his father and uncle.
"We loved it," Watkins said. "Everything I saw was great. I like the environment. I like the campus and everything there. I think they feel the same way about me."
Watkins spent time with Illini offensive line coach Luke Butkus and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee -- who are making Watkins a priority -- took a tour of the football facilities and the campus.
"Coach Lovie and Coach Butkus they're really cool," Watkins said. "I like that they're honest with me. They're telling me they're one of their top guys and they really want me. I can be a part of something more special then I am now, that I can be part of something special with Illinois. I feel that's something I can be really involved with."
Watkins said the best part of the visit was a long meeting with Smith in the Illini head coach's office.
"Me, dad and my uncle sat in Coach Lovie Smith's office for an hour and hour and a half, not talking about football stuff but just about life," Watkins said. "It was awesome with him possibly being my college coach. My dad and uncle really got a kick out of that."
Illinois has made a big impression on Watkins, but they have competition. Watkins said Louisille and Cincinnati are other programs sticking out at the moment.
"Louisville, I like their campus as well," Watkins said. "I like their setup with their dorms. I like Coach K (Chris Klenakis), the offensive line coach. He's the real deal. He's honest as well. I like their football program. Coach (Bobby) Petrino, he's really turned that program around. He's got them on the rise in the ACC.
"(Cincinnati), that's just my hometown college. They're showing me a lot of love. I can go there any time. The door is always open."
Watkins said he plans to visit Illinois again after the dead period (which ends July 10) with his mother so she can see the campus, but he said he isn't locked into a decision date yet.
"I'm going to play it by ear," Watkins said. "My dad tells me, 'When the time comes, the time comes.' If I want to commit, I'll commit. I just know that when I commit that I won't take my commitment back. I just want to be 100 percent sure."