As an NFL coach, Lovie Smith was accustomed to being around some of the best athletes in the country. While the past few Illinois recruiting classes included several good football players who were successful at the high school level, in most cases the level of athleticism hasn’t been on par with some of the top programs in the country.
If the commitments in the 2017 class so far are any indication, it’s clear that Lovie and his staff’s goal is to infuse more natural athleticism at the skill positions while bringing in some “nasties” in the trenches.
With the vast experience of the staff, they feel confident in their ability to teach and refine the skills needed, but they know they need players with a higher athletic ceiling and are starting to land those players.
In The Trenches
Likewise, while Illinois has brought in some good offensive linemen over the last few years, they were cast for a more wide-open passing attack instead of a run-heavy attack that has been a staple of the Big Ten.
2017 commits Vederian Lowe and Larry Boyd are two guys who are both 6’5” and pushing 320 pounds. Much different than the 6’6”, 260-270 pound linemen the staff targeted in the past. Lowe and Boyd fit that “nasties” mold, but even at their size, they both move well. In a way, those two are more characteristic of traditional Big Ten linemen.
Target Howard Watkins of Cincinnati (OH) Colerain is only at 275 pounds right now, but has the frame to carry another 30-40 pounds well and could grow to a similar type of player.
On the defensive side, Illinois will be replacing several defensive linemen, especially at defensive end. The defensive line, outside of a season or two, has been a strength for the Illini in recent years, and figures to be the cornerstone of the defense in 2016. The staff is off to a good start with a pre-season commitment from Huntley (IL) DE Olalere Oladipo.
But with all of the turn over at the position, the staff is still targeting several talented defensive linemen, including Owen Carney, who is the teammate of new WR commit Carmoni Green (more on him later). Oladipo is 6’5” and already 240 pounds. But at his size, he’s deceptively athletic and fluid. As he progresses through a college strength and conditioning program, he could grow another 15-20 pounds and transform into a key, key player for the Illini.
Carney has all of the physical tools to become an elite edge rusher, but is still somewhat raw. The Illini coaches have prioritized him, though, because they believe they can coach him up and develop him into a great player.
And while OL/DL recruiting has shifted somewhat, the most noticeable difference has been in the recruiting of skill position players, where the Illini have landed faster, more explosive athletes.
Landing The Equalizers
Players like Mike Epstein, Ricky Smalling, Tony Adams, Kendall Smith, and Carmoni Green all have legitimate 4.5 or better speed at their respective positions. Other than Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee, Illinois has really lacked serious deep threats the last few seasons. That additional speed can be the difference in whether or not a receiver gets separation or a cornerback closing the gap on a pass that’s in the air.
In past classes, Illinois just generally hasn’t had that. In 2017, they seem to be making big strides toward that.
Plus, one of the intangibles with the commits so far is their scrappy “chip on my shoulder” nature. Guys like Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green play with a confident swagger and back it up on the field.
Mike Epstein, especially after having to sit out his junior season with an injury, feels he has a lot to prove. Tony Adams, a key two-way player for his high school in the St. Louis area, was a relative unknown throughout his junior year, despite an impressive tape.
Even at the quarterback position, Illinois added considerable speed in Marian Catholic product Cam Thomas. Thomas has legitimate 4.5 speed, but fell under the radar of a lot of programs due to his high school team’s struggles last year (1-8 against brutal competition).
In a way, the recruiting philosophy is similar to Ron Zook’s first year or two at Illinois. He targeted athletes and figured out the rest once they got to campus. Zook’s downfall was he and his staff’s inability to refine a portion of those athletes. If there’s anything the current Illini staff is built to do, it’s develop players.
The class is estimated to be just under halfway complete at this point, but the staff has already compiled some of the key ingredients needed to construct a more athletic and physically competitive team. Even moderate success this year could draw in more athletes and catalyze the roster fortification even more quickly than expected.