Jeremy Werner

Illini football recruiting notebook: St. Louis 'essential' for Illini

Illini director of player personnel Josh Sternquist chats about the importance of St. Louis, the future Illini satellite camps, progress of the recruiting staff and where the Illini stand in the Class of 2017

CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith was presented with two options for a satellite camp this summer in St. Louis.

Illinois could host a camp on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River with more ease. NCAA rules allow in-state programs to organize, provide equipment for and essential run the entire camp within their own borders.

Satellite camps held outside a program's state borders, like Illinois in St. Louis, must be organized by another entity, whether a high school or a training program/football academy.

Smith, defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams from 2001-03, was adamant: get the satellite camp inside the Gateway City borders.

"Coach has name recognition (in St. Louis) being with the Rams," Illinois director of player personnel Josh Sternquist said. "For him to actually be in St. Louis, be in the St. Louis area, that was important because that's where he was at. To say, 'We're having a St. Louis camp,' but be on the Illinois side of it, it's just not the same. For us to leave our borders and actually be in Missouri and have a satellite camp in Missouri, that I think defined how important the state of Missouri is to us and St. Louis, the city of."

The decision paid off for Illinois. Two players who visited the Illinois camp June 7 at Trinity High School on the city's north side committed to Illinois last week. Tony Adams participated and broke out at the camp, receiving an Illinois offer soon after showcasing his speed and versatility. Larry Boyd didn't participate in the camp, but he hung out at the camp and received his first in-person exposure to Smith and his staff.

Smith has helped re-open doors for Illinois in St. Louis. Illinois hopes the commitments help open even more doors. "Now the idea is, 'OK, now we're going to get some more kids,' because there's a lot more talent there," Sternquist said. "Maybe some kids we didn't get in there early enough. With this next class, we'll get an opportunity to get in all of those kids equally. That's what's exciting is that once you get a couple of those kids, now we go get more kids. Now, also, somebody has led the way and maybe connected something that hasn't been connected as much before."

Illinois won both recruitments over Missouri -- for Adams it was head-to-head with the Tigers, while Boyd chose the Illini over Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma State -- a program that has dominated Illinois in the St. Louis area recently.

"It means a lot for us because our head coach made the statement that we really wanted to get into St. Louis and compete for every single guy that we feel can play in the Big Ten and at the University of Illinois," said Illinois running backs coach Thad Ward, who recruits the St. Louis area for Illinois. "We're making some headway there. We're going to continue to do it. We're going to grind it out and have a whatever-it-takes kind of attitude to get it done. The guys have been receptive, so it's only going to get better we think as we continue to progress from there."

Missouri is a bit weakened after Gary Pinkel's resignation (due to health issues) and because of turmoil at the university and the athletic department. Illinois -- which has just three St. Louis area natives on scholarship -- is looking to re-create a pipeline to St. Louis and the Metro East, the eastern suburbs of St. Louis across the river in Illinois.

The satellite camp in June exposed to Illinois to some of the area's top 2018 and 2019 talent. The Illini already have offered 2018 prospects DT Michael Thompson, DT Trevor Trout, WR Kamryn Babb, DL Ronnie Perkins and WR Cameron Brown. They've also offered Boyd's quarterback, 2019 prospect Isaiah Williams, as well as 2019 WR Cameron Coleman.

"(St. Louis) is an essential piece," Sternquist said. "First and foremost, Illinois is the most important piece. That's home. But St. Louis is right across the border. For us, speaking with Coach Smith right off the bat, it was, 'What are the areas who define who we are?' You got Illinois, Chicago, St. Louis, Missouri and then we said Indianapolis, and now Cincinnati has kind of come into that fold. So right off the bat, St. Louis is going to be a key place for us regionally. So right off the bat, the satellite camps having them there and then going and recruiting them hard like it's in state. For us, St. Louis, that whole East St. Louis area, that for us is in state. That's why we had a coach on the Illinois side and the Missouri side on two occasions there during the spring eval period. It's going to be prime ground for us moving forward."

Future satellites

Illinois participated in seven satellite camps during the month of June: three in Illinois, one in St. Louis, one in Dallas, one in Ft. Lauderdale and one in Tampa.

The Illini plan to hold satellite camps again in June -- they may hold one near Indianapolis next year too and could have their eyes on a California satellite camp in future years -- but must have a contingency plan.

The NCAA banned satellite camps in early April, only to reverse the decision later that month. That allowed coaches to hold satellite camps this summer with the plan for the NCAA to re-evaluate the rule and make a longer-lasting decision on the future of satellite camps this fall.

"Right now, you're putting together a couple things together at the same time," Sternquist said. "One, you're putting together a camp schedule with satellite camps and also you're putting together a satellite schedule that if something goes down (with an NCAA rule change) without them. So right now, the plan is to move forward with a plan for both. I think we hit some really prime areas. I think that in coach's eyes, that's the most important thing, that we're getting in the areas that are essential for Illinois and not just going places to go to places. If we find a piece of nice land there that those kids love coming to U of I, then we should have a camp there."

Recruiting department takes shape

Holdover recruiting staffers Pat Embleton and Nina Baloun carried much of the behind-the-scenes recruiting load this summer. But help has arrived.

Sternquist's recruiting department is starting to take shape -- literally.

The former recruiting offices have been renovated into three separate offices and the former player's lounge on the top floor of the football offices has been converted into the recruiting department office, equipped with cubicles and a row of desks. Construction isn't fully complete, but the Illini's beefed-up recruiting department is now a reality. Sternquist leads five more full-time employees that include Embleton (now director of scouting), Baloun (assistant recruiting coordinator), social media/graphics coordinator Travis Perry, director of high school relations Nathan McNeal and recruiting analyst James Kirkland. The department also will include interns.

Previous Illinois staffs usually had only two or three full-time staff support positions focused on recruiting. Illinois, thanks to increased financial support from athletics director Josh Whitman, now has a recruiting department that mirrors some of the better Big Ten and SEC programs.

"It's crazy, everybody started coming in just before fall camp started," Sternquist said. "We've had a couple weeks there where everybody got to kind of know each other and get a feel for each other. Then it's just been crazy because fall camp is straight football and straight meetings and we're here 15 to 18 hours a day, so we've gotten to know each other even better I think. I think that time together being together here so early in the morning to so late at night, everybody's getting a feel for what everybody's importance is coming into the department. There's going to be some guys that have some higher qualities in one area and we can all learn from those guys. The good thing is we're all a big family. We're all kind of coming together, and the department together as a whole, I'm really excited about it. We've got a lot of talent here that's going to help us and our coaching staff moving forward."

Class of 2017 progress

Given the new coaching staff's late arrival -- more than four months after most other first-year staffs -- Illinois has played catch-up in recruiting the Class of 2017. They're still a little behind, but recent commitments show they are closing the gap.

The Illini currently have the fewest amount of commitments in the Big Ten (nine), but they also are landing a better quality of recruit than some with an average star rating (3.00) that ranks 10th among 14 Big Ten teams. With impending announcements from some top targets this week -- Huntley (Ill.) defensive end Olalere Oladipo and Miami (Fla.) Central receiver Carmoni Green announce on Thursday -- the Illini have a chance to hit their target goal before the season starts.

"I think right now, as of today, we're in a good place. I truly do," Sternquist said. "Going into the season, I think we had an idea of where we wanted to be. I think we're at that point. We still have time before the season starts. Once the season starts, I think the opportunity for people to see our product, our team on the field is only going to help our situation. I think Coach Smith and the staff, getting them on the field, game day, the product will actually be on the field. We've kind of had a crystal ball of, 'Hey, this is what we're going to do. This is what we're going to be.' So now, that team's going to be on the field.

"We're not done. This process for us, especially with how late everything started, we're going to take it up to Signing Day. We're not going to look to close things down by November. That's another outlook. We're not done recruiting. All the kids across the country, in this state, we're not done. Your evaluation is not done. That's the next step is going back and re-evaluating what we've seen and kids are going to pop up. Kids are going to see us play and say, 'Hey, coach, I'm interested.' Then it's taking those kids, evaluating them, screening them and then moving forward."

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