Illini Recruiting Big Board: Offense

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down Illinois football's biggest offensive needs and priority targets in the Class of 2017


Commits: Cam Thomas, Marian Catholic

Remaining scholarship spots: 0

Analysis: On the surface, Thomas may have been a confusing offer and commitment for fans since the Marian Catholic quarterback had no other offers when he committed. But Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee made a quick and confident evaluation with Thomas, and it makes sense when you watch Thomas. Granted, Thomas has not put up great stats at Marian Catholic, but as his coach told Illini Inquirer, Thomas has a pretty poor supporting cast in possibly the toughest conference in the state. Most of the players he grew up with transferred to Homewood-Flossmoor, a powerhouse. But Thomas has all the tools McGee wants in his dual-threat quarterback: speed (4.5 40-yard dash), agility, a solidly strong arm and quickly improving footwork and accuracy. Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota were closing in on Thomas when he made his commitment. Illinois got a good prospect. He may just need two years at Illinois before competing for the starting spot.

Confidence Meter (1 = really worried Illini won't land any of their targets, 10 = Illini will perfectly fill their need with great prospects): 7, Thomas is far from a finished product, but McGee identified a player who has the skills, mind and athleticism to thrive in his offense.

Running back

Commits: Mike Epstein, Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas

Remaining scholarship spots: 1

Priority targets

  • Chase Hayden, Colliersville (Tenn.) St. George's: The Illini are out of it. Lovie Smith was on the Tennessee staff when Chase's father, Aaron, played for the Vols and Illinois has showed Hayden a lot of love -- including making Hayden their first call during the spring evaluation period -- but he has an eye for the SEC. He didn't even include Tennessee in his final four, which includes Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and South Carolina.
  • Malik Davis, Jesuit (Fla.): The Florida running back recently released a top-seven which included Illinois, but the Illini seem to have a lot of ground to make up. Miami and North Carolina currently have the upperhand. The Illini will try to sell playing time, but Davis wants to make a decision soon.

Prospects to watch

  • Calvin Tyler, Beaumont (Texas) Ozen: The Illini haven't offered the quick Texas back yet but are starting to up their interest. Cal is Tyler's only power-five offer at the moment.
  • Alex Thomason, Sylacauga (Ala.): The new Illini staff offered Thomason early, and Purdue is the only other power-five offer for a solid all-around back.
  • Terence Dunlap, Mapleville (Ala.): Dunlap isn't as strong as the backs McGee usually prefers, but he has plenty of speed. The Illini are his only offer.
  • Jamal Hourel, Andalusia (Ala.): Another Alabaman whose only offer is from Illinois, Hourel is a more physical, complete back. Expect these Bama backs to visit sometime this fall.
  • Kywan Smith, Miami (Fla.) Central: Illinois was the first to offer the Florida running back, who is teammates with several other Illini targets.

Analysis: The Illini have a huge need at running back. Ke'Shawn Vaughn could leave after the 2017 season, Dre Brown's health is an issue and none of the other backs on the roster seem to have bell-cow potential. Holding on to Epstein would be a significant win and a good start. The Alabama backs and Tyler are intriguing, but the Illini want a more dynamic back. Maleek Williams fit the bill, but he committed to Arkansas last month. The Illini would like to get back in there if Arkansas lands another back, like Hayden.

Confidence Meter: 5, Epstein has an open recruitment, but Illinois still has an OK chance to keep him if Michigan doesn't push too hard. The Illini seem to have a good chance to land one of their Alabama offers. The ideal would be to sway Williams and keep Epstein.

Wide receiver

Commits: Ricky Smalling, Brother Rice; Kendall Smith, Bolingbrook

Remaining scholarship spots: 2-3; depending on if Smith plays receiver or defensive back

Priority targets

  • Carmoni Green, Miami (Fla.) Central: The Illini have made the Miami Central receiver a priority since the spring, and he has scheduled a visit to Illinois for next week. He also plans a visit to Pitt in August, but the Illini would like to close out this recruitment earlier than that.
  • William Ulmer, Iowa Western CC: The Illini want an immediate-impact speedy playmaker in the slot, and this former Maryland player fits the bill. Louisville also has offered.
  • Cartrell Thomas, Lancaster (Texas): The Illini have stood out early for the Lone Star receiver, who also has interest in Texas Tech. He wants to visit Illinois soon.
  • Jaylond Adams, Minor (Ala.): The super-fast Alabama wideout visited Illinois last month. Indiana is his only other power-five offer, but Southern Miss is a definite player.
  • D.J. Edwards, Palm Beach Lakes (Fla.): Illinois offered early, but Edwards has blown up over the last few months with offers from Penn State, Mizzou, Louisville and others.

Prospects to watch

  • Jamir Whitelow, Peoria (Ill.): The last staff was pushing for a commitment from the Peoria native, but Whitelow's lack of speed has caused the new staff pause. Whitelow has no other power-five offers, and Illinois likely will need to evaluate him this fall.

Analysis: Illinois is off to a great start with Smalling as the No. 1 target and chain-mover. Now, they'd like another tall target who can stretch the field and a speedy slot wideout. They have a lot of good, top options still on the board.

Confidence Meter: 9, Illinois is on the short list of the top four wideouts on the priority target list. Land two of them, and that's a heck of a wideout class.

Tight end

Commits: None

Remaining scholarship spots: 1

Priority target: Reese Leitao, Jenks (Okla.): The Illini are working hard on the son of DePaul basketball coach Dave Leitao. But the big, athletic tight end is a hot commodity. Penn State just offered, and Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa State and others are all in hot pursuit.

Prospects to watch: ???

Analysis: With Andrew TrainerZarrian Holcombe and Griffin Palmer just arriving at Illinois, the Illini need just one tight end in this class. They missed out on a strong in-state class with Jake Marwede committing to Duke, Cole Kmet committing to Notre Dame and Logan Christopherson pledging to Mizzou. The past Illini staff had offered Griffin Hammer as well, but the new staff backed off before Hammer committed to Colorado State. At the moment, their options seem limited.

Confidence Meter: 3, Tight end isn't the biggest need in this class with two of the three freshmen tight ends very likely to redshirt. The Illini would like a more athletic, versatile tight end. They haven't prioritized many others at the position, so it seems they're still searching for the right one.

Offensive line

Commits: Vederian Lowe, Rockford (Ill.) Auburn

Remaining scholarship spots: 3

Priority targets

  • Howard Watkins, Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain: The Illini are in a battle with Louisville for the strong, mobile interior offensive lineman. Watkins visited campus last month with his father and uncle and will return with his mother next week. The Illini have an opportunity to close.
  • Larry Boyd, St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic: The Illini made the top-eight for the Missouri OL, but it's a very competitive top-eight. Oklahoma State excites Boyd. Missouri is entrenched here and will host Boyd again this weekend. The Illini are hoping to get Boyd back on campus next week to further establish their relationship. Boyd plans a late decision, and the Illini may actually benefit from a drawn-out process.
  • Caleb Jones, Indianapolis (Ind.) Lawrence North: Indiana appears to be the leader, and Purdue has been involved for a while, but this mountain of a man received an Illini offer this spring and is intrigued by Lovie Smith. He may visit Illinois next week. That'd be a good sign.
  • William Sherman, Allen (Texas): The Illini are one of only a few power-five offers for the top-40 guard. It'd be nice to get the Texan to campus on a visit.

Prospects to watch

  • Preston Mixon, Montgomery (Ala.) Jefferson Davis: The Illini are the only power-five program to offer Mixon, but Cincinnati, Southern Miss and more southern programs are going after him hard.
  • Johari Branch, Chicago Phillips: The in-state guard doesn't have an Illini offer but he was strong at the Illini satellite camp in Chicago last month and could earn some offers with a strong senior season.

Analysis: The Illini need to get bigger, stronger and nastier up front, and Lowe was a great start in the class. While his film was shaky as a junior (he looked overweight and slow), he had a dominant spring and summer and has the potential to be the best offensive lineman in the state. They just need two or three more like him.

Confidence meter: 4; Watkins would be a nice get to help boost the confidence level in this class. Boyd would be a huge get and Jones and Sherman would be great out-of-state gets as well, but the Illini don't seem to have the momentum with any of them yet. 


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