Micah Awodiran has always spoken highly of Lovie Smith in interviews. Hell, he even talked about how awe-struck he was the first time he met him.
The athletic linebacker from 2015 state runner-up Marist HS on Chicago's near south side possesses a great balance of athleticism and instinct. His abilities off the field almost overshadow his play on the field. Those were two of the big reasons Lovie Smith made Awodiran a priority from the moment they got to Champaign.
Awodiran was a great fit for the Illinois defense and could have been coached by the same defensive-minded coach that guided players like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to multiple pro bowls.
Instead, on Thursday, Awodiran did something that really didn't surprise anyone who knew him and verbally committed to Yale University, an Ivy League school that technically can't even give out a full-ride scholarship.
Now, if you know anything about Awodiran off the field, you know that he was going to put immense weight on education and culture at a university. Strong grades and a 29 ACT, Awodiran is exactly the type of player Lovie is hoping to land to begin to fortify the culture at Illinois.
So yeah, this one hurts for Illinois. Now with Awodiran off the board, we look at the path forward and whether this decision in particular fuels the cause for concern more than most other recruitments so far.
Illinois has other linebackers on their recruiting board (they'd be foolish not to), but Awodiran was the one they wanted. He checked all of the boxes and then some. The honeymoon period for Lovie's staff in recruiting is really over now, and it's time for them to start delivering.
Commitments from Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith were a great starting point for this staff, and battles they needed to close. And RB commit Mike Epstein recently reaffirmed his commitment. But other than those, the recruiting wins, especially in key cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis have come few and far between.
Illinois has landed some solid in-state prospects like Vederian Lowe, Cam Thomas, and found a hopeful diamond-in-the-rough in LB Marc Mondesir. But Illinois really still has yet to win a knock-down, drag-out battle for a recruit, and losing one to Yale is discouraging, to say the least.
Sure, Illinois hasn't even played a game yet under Lovie, but the buzz of the Lovie Smith hire on the recruiting front is wearing off quickly, and it's time for the rubber to meet the road. With a decision primed for St. Louis DB Tony Adams on Friday, a long-time Illinois lean, the current talk is that the Illini may not come out on top there, either.
Oh, and the attention now in-state shifts hard toward Huntley DE Olalere Oladipo as he could decide either late this summer or early this fall. If Illinois is unable to land him as well, it would be a double gut-punch sort of feeling for the orange and blue.
Time to panic? No. Time to have some concern about this staff recruiting, sure. It's a long-time NFL coach who was out of college coaching (and recruiting) for two decades. Lovie is a very approachable, genuine, and down to earth guy, but that alone won't seal the deal on most recruiting battles.
I'm all for giving this staff a fair chance to recruit. The last 10 years of Illinois football haven't done a ton to really improve the perception of the program, and successful years were sporadic. The past two head coaches both had their well-noted struggles, and the 2016 recruiting class couldn't capitalize on the momentum of a surprisingly strong bunch in 2015.
Long story short, it's time to do better (easier said than done, right?.. well, yeah).
Where Do They Go From Here?
As I mentioned before, Awodiran wasn't the ONLY linebacker left on their board. Here are a few guys they are still pursuing and a brief rundown of each.
Brooks, the son of NFL great Derrick Brooks, already has an offer from his father's alma mater (Florida State) and will be tough to pluck from the Sunshine State. But Lovie does have a strong relationship with the elder Brooks. If Florida State fills up, perhaps Brooks looks north for a college destination.
With Awodiran off the board, Illinois will likely pick up the heat with the Florida native. A big body, he has the versatility and athleticism to play inside backer.