Illinois made quite an impression on priority offensive line target Howard Watkins during his weekend official visit to Champaign.
"I loved it. I really did. I had a ball," Watkins said. "Illinois has really set the bar high for me. I think Illinois has really opened up my eyes to a lot of things I want to see not only from them but from other universities now. I'm really happy Illinois was my first official visit. I can't want to take more official visits so I can compare them to Illinois."
The Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain lineman visited Illinois in June but used his two-day weekend visit to experience what Illinois offered during gameday. Though Illinois lost 48-23 to North Carolina, a sell-out crowd of 60,670 -- the first at Illinois in five years -- gave Watkins the feeling that Lovie Smith will turn around the Illini program.
"I wanted to see the fans," Watkins said. "I wanted to see how the players reacted to adversity. You know how games are, but I wanted to see how the players reacted. They reacted how a team like that with a new coach should react. It's like what coach (Jim) Harbaugh has done with Michigan. Of course, Michigan has been good for a long time, but Harbaugh has done a 360 with Michigan to where they're now a top-five team. I think Coach Lovie can do the same thing with Illinois."
Watkins, whom Illinois projects as a future left tackle, met with Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman before the game and on Sunday sat down at length with the Illinois coaching staff, including Smith, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, special teams coach Bob Ligashesky and offensive line coach Luke Butkus.
"Coach Butkus, Coach Ligs and Coach McGee asked me after the loss if they still had a chance with me," Watkins said, "and I said, 'Of course.' I knew they fought hard. North Carolina is a really good team. I just like how the players were mad after the game, but they're ready. They're hungry to win. They want to win.
"Coach Butkus told me everything he told me before. He loves me. He wants to coach me. He knows he can get me to the next level. I love Coach Ligs. He's one of those coaches who is going to give it to you straight. My mom, that's her favorite besides Coach Lovie and Coach Butkus. Coach Lovie, if he could, he would give you his clothes off your back. He's super genuine. He's super intelligent. He sells the university but he doesn't try to. Other coaches, you can tell they're trying to just sell their university. Coach Lovie and his staff is so genuine. We have conversations about non-football related stuff, which is great. They really care about you outside of football."
Watkins also had conversations with several Illini commits in attendance, including WR Ricky Smalling, QB Cameron Thomas, ATH Kendall Smith and OL Larry Boyd.
"That was awesome," Watkins said. "I asked those guys what made them commit and what did Lovie Smith mean to them. They all just said it doesn't get any better than Coach Lovie. Hes coming from the NFL. His staff is one of the best staffs you can have. You have NFL experience. Coach (Joey) Boese is one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. I love their plan. What the commits told me is they're going to change this program. Lovie what he tells them is genuine, which is what I feel. They're excited to see what coach Lovie can do."
Watkins was accompanied by his father and uncle on his June visit. One of his big influences came on this visit: his mother.
"My mom she actually loved it," Watkins said. "She's a big one with the degree side of it and NFL football. She loves that the school is such a high level of public school and this it has 400,000 living graduates. My mom she's big on the academic side of it. She likes the football side of it, but academics is even more important to her."
Watkins plans to take more official visits before announcing his decision on Oct. 29 but hasn't yet set those visit days yet because he's focused on his high school season. He said he may release a top-three soon, but admitted that Illinois, Louisville and Cincinnati likely will be the trio.
"Louisville, they're just hungry," Watkins said. "They're hungry to be the best in their division. With their quarterback (Heisman contender Lamar Jackson), they got and the pro-style offense. I love a pro-style. I love the scheme. As an offensive lineman, I can show my footwork, my speed the way I can get to 'backers and stuff. I like their academic advisers and their apartments that they live in. And Coach (Bobby) Petrino is a great coach.
"I just love the feel I get from UC. It's home. They make me feel at home. I get open doors to all the coaches. They all love me and dream about bringing me to the program."
With a decision just more than a month away, pressure is amping up in Watkins' recruitment. After his official visit to Champaign, Illinois seemed to amp up pressure on his other suitors.
"None of my schools pressure me into committing," Watkins said. "They say when it's the right time, I'll know. They all have things in common. I just want to take my officials and get a feel for them all."