Jeremy Werner

Former Michigan commit Dele Harding: 'I'm glad to be here' at Illinois

Former Michigan commit Dele Harding was a huge late addition to the Illini Class of 2016

CHAMPAIGN -  Dele Harding was so sold on Michigan football that he committed to the Wolverines a year and half before his Signing Day.

“Just going to a couple games and how supportive they were," Harding said sold him on Michigan, as well as the strong academics of the university.

But that support didn't last until Signing Day.

Harding had committed to previous Michigan coach Brady Hoke in Oct. 2014, but Michigan fired Hoke after that season. Jim Harbaugh, Hoke's replacement, and Harding cut ties almost exactly a year later.

By Signing Day 2016, Harding was one of 11 former Michigan commits to not sign with the Wolverines -- either by their choice or Michigan's -- who had to find a new home.

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Now at Illinois -- which travels to play No. 3 Michigan on Saturday -- Harding took the high road when asked Wednesday about the divorce.

“I just follow God’s plan," the true freshman linebacker said. "I ended up at Illinois, and I’m happy to be here.”

Harding was committed to Michigan longer than he's been an Illini. The Philadelphia native -- who moved to Delaware and played high school football at now-defunct Eastern Christian Academy in Elkton, Md. -- and Illinois had a quick-fling recruitment. 

Illinois didn't nudge its way into his recruitment until about a month prior to Signing day. Harding took an official visit to Illinois the weekend before Signing Day. At that point, Rutgers was rumored to have the lead.

“Yeah, that was the case," Harding confirmed this week.

But Illinois pulled off the perfect official visit, swaying Harding at the last second.

"Just talking with the coaches about the need for linebacker and not only just the sport, but the education and history Illinois holds," Harding said. "The alumni, what they are ranked academically and overall academically."

Harding said Illinois basically gave him the sell that sold him on Michigan. But Harding said he has no extra motivation on Saturday going into the Big House, a place where he long thought he'd play all his college football home games.

“No, I take every game the same, whether it’s Michigan or anybody other than them," Harding said. "Every game is prepared the same.”

'We got a steal'

At this time last fall, the Illinois coaching staff thought signing linebacker Dele Harding was a pipe dream.

"We knew him but didn't think we had a chance," said Pat Embleton, who has served in the Illinois personnel department for the past four seasons. "With him committed to Michigan, we didn't think we had a chance in hell."

Illinois still didn't enter the picture until head coach Bill Cubit, who after a year as interim coach signed a two-year deal with interim chancellor Barbara Wilson, hired Paul Williams. The secondary coach has deep East Coast ties, including a relationship with Harding's coach at Eastern Christian Academy. That coach told Illinois that they should nudge into the recruitment.

Looking for a statement recruit, Cubit and his staff jumped in with both feet.

From December to January, Illinois coaches visited Harding's home five times -- the maximum allowed by NCAA rules.

“Everything changed," said Embleton, who was kept on staff by Smith and now serves as director of scouting. "To be honest, I thought Cubit did a really good job at that point. Just the way he worked the parents.” Then came the all-important visit. It bears repeating that most, including Harding himself, assumed the three-star linebacker would pick Rutgers. But Illinois took a chance to sell something different: academics.

"Eastern Christian was a charter school that focused on academics," Embleton said. "It was more of a guess on Paul's end. Paul didn’t even know the kid that well, but the biggest thing we had going for us is we could get kids on academics if we could get the parents here.

"The best thing about Dele is he was really receptive when he got here. Some kids aren’t. But Dele was very open. He was engaged. He talked to professors. Most kids on academic stuff don’t have any questions. He did. Once we saw that he was receptive talking to a professor, that set the tone for the rest of the visit.”

Harding left the visit without a commitment, but Cubit made one more trip to the East Coast to make his final pitch to Harding and his parents.

“When he committed to us, it was like, 'Holy (expletive)! We got a steal! This is our steal of the class,'" Embleton said.

Harding,'s 28th-ranked middle linebacker in the Class of 2016, was viewed as the defensive version of running back commit Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who the Illini surprisingly snagged on Signing Day 2015 to fill a huge void on offense.

Harding also helped Illinois finish with a respectable recruiting ranking (60th nationally, 12th Big Ten) -- at least considering its unprecedented head coaching situation at the time.

"In terms of recruitability and where we were with an interim coach at that time, (the Harding commitment) felt like we sealed our fate and we were going to be here for a year," Embleton said.

Hardy's heir apparent

Harding was expected to not only contribute early for Cubit, but following the graduation of four-year starter Mason Monheim and defection of two-year starter T.J. Neal to Auburn, Harding was expected play a huge role early.

But then new athletic director Josh Whitman bought out Cubit's short-term deal, firing the head coach just a month after Harding and the rest of the 2016 class had signed their national letters of intent. Two days later, Whitman officially announced his hiring Lovie Smith.

Smith then hired NFL linebacker great Hardy Nickerson to coordinate his defense, who recruited his son, Cal middle linebacker Hardy Nickersonto transfer and spend his last season of eligibility at Illinois. The younger Nickerson has provided an early impediment to Harding's playing time. But Nickerson also serves as a textbook example of what Smith and the elder Nickerson demand from a middle linebacker. The younger Nickerson currently leads the Big Ten with 9.7 tackles per game (58 tackles overall) and says Harding has been an attentive apprentice.

“He soaks everything in from the coaches," the younger Nickerson said. "If he has a question, he’ll come ask me what he’s supposed to do. He’s soaking everything in and the most important thing is when he’s out there, he’s letting it all loose, playing as hard and fast as he can and not thinking while he’s out there.”

Said the elder Nickerson: “I think it’s huge for him to have that type of veteran guy in front of him, so he can just watch and learn what it takes to be a great player. From the work habits to day-to-day habits on and off the field, I just think it’s a great example to have in front of him for his future.”

Harding is expected to the Nickerson's heir apparent at middle linebacker and is picking up little things from the veteran on playing the position.

“Out there, Hardy is a leader," Harding said. "He’s directing the defense. He knows everything. He’s one of the smartest defenders we got. So watching him, what he does and how he reacts to certain situations, I’m always taking notes off him. Especially in this defense, the MIKE is the whole voice of the defense. He directs everything. He directs the traffic, checks calls and everything. I didn’t know that coming in and I’m just getting used to it.”

With Nickerson blocking his way for six more games, Harding has played mostly on special teams -- where he has impressed. Harding, who has six tackles this season, last week earned the team's special teams player of the week award. He's impressed the man he's expected to replace.

“From a lot of young guys, you see sometimes when they’re out in the game, they’re puppy-eyed or a little timid," the younger Nickerson said. "But he’s out there playing hard and playing fast. Him and (fellow true freshman linebacker) Jake Hansen, they’re out there playing as if they were juniors and seniors on special teams. You always love seeing those guys make plays when they’re in the game. I think those two are going to be great players in the future.”

'All the thing you're looking for'

Smith demands a lot out of middle linebackers. After coaching Brian Urlacher, he expects a lot. While no one is expecting Harding to play like a future Hall of Famer, Smith is encouraged by his true freshman's potential.

“He has the skill set we’re looking for at the middle linebacker position," Smith said. "He’ll hit. He’s physical. He has good movement. He likes football. I like everything about him. There’s a reason why he plays as a true freshman. There’s something the coaching staff likes.

"All the things you’re looking for in a linebacker, he has. He’s just young.”

Harding has embraced the slower-paced growth and his role on special teams, saying, "Any opportunity I get, I’m going to take advantage of it.” “The first time I was out here with training camp, the speed of the game was real fast," Harding said. "It’s tremendously slowed down for me. Everything’s just adjusting itself.”

One of the few no-doubt Big Ten level prospects to sign with Illinois last February, Harding has looked the part in practice too.

“He’s a guy that has a chance to be an impact player down the road," the elder Nickerson said. "What you’ve seen on special teams is what we’ve seen in practice and throughout training camp. We’re excited about him in terms of what he’s going to bring in the future for us.

“He’s high-intensity. That means he’s got a great motor, and he’s a contact guy. He loves contact, and he will hit you.”

Harding was a Michigan man for a year. The disappointment of not playing at his first choice is lessened by the opportunity he now has at Illinois.

Harding very likely will soon be the man in the middle for the Illini, the one directing a Lovie Smith defense.

“It’s just been a blessing that (Smith is) here," Harding said. "Just an NFL staff, Coach Hardy. This is a linebacker-oriented defense. Everything I learn here will prepare me for the next level.”

Michigan may not have wanted him, but Illinois was happy to scoop up the Wolverines' cast-off talent.

"It fell in our lap," Embleton said. "It was a blessing. The coaches here now love him."

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