NOTEBOOK: Illini making St. Louis a recruiting priority

Illini selective with JuCos, want to beef up walk-on program and want to add more athletic quarterbacks

Chicagoland is the area most often under the microscope of any analysis of Illinois football recruiting. And for good reason. The state's biggest city -- and the third largest in the country -- produces some of the Midwest's and country's best talent.

But St. Louis, the country's 19th most populated metropolitan area, is just 180 miles southwest of Champaign and produces dozens of Division I talents each year.

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Yet, Illinois currently has just three scholarship players from the St. Louis area on its roster: Stanley Green (East St. Louis, Ill.), Griffin Palmer (St. Charles, Mo.) and Darius Mosely (O'Fallon, Ill.).

But Lovie Smith is out to change that. So far, the results are encouraging.

The current class already has two St. Louis area commits: St. Louis Trinity Catholic guard Larry Boyd and St. Louis University High cornerback Tony Adams, a Belleville (Ill.) native. Boyd chose Illinois over offers from Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Missouri and Wisconsin. Adams chose Illinois over Missouri, a program that has beaten Illinois for most top St. Louis area targets in recent years.

“Chicago is very important. The state of Illinois, of course, is very important," Smith said. "But St. Louis is a big area for us too. Both of them are close. We’re right in the middle pretty much between St. Louis and Chicago."

Illinois is hoping to add more momentum to its St. Louis area recruiting efforts.

Several staff members including Smith, running backs coach Thad Ward and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee visited high schools throughout the St. Louis area during the last two weeks. The Illini are hosting three East St. Louis prospects: top-50 overall prospect and four-star receiver Jeff Thomas, three-star quarterback and Mizzou commit Reyondous Estes and two-star linebacker James Knight, who received an Illini offer this week.

The Illini also have offered several 2018 St. Louis area prospects -- including four-star defensive tackle Trevor Trout, three-star receiver Kamryn Babb and three-star receiver Cameron Brown -- and a few 2019 prospects, including Boyd's teammates Isaiah Williams and Marcus Washington.  Adding to the Illini's efforts is the wobbling of Missouri. Instability and controversy at the university as well as the resignation of Gary Pinkel -- who led the Tigers to five division titles (three in the Big 12 and two in the SEC) from 2007 to 2015 -- due to health issues has left them slightly more vulnerable against a former NFL head coach at Illinois. First-time head coach Barry Odom's second recruiting class of 17 commits currently ranks 50th in the country.

Though, one of those commits, Estes is visiting Illinois this weekend along with a teammate, Thomas, who has long been a Missouri priority. Smith hopes they join Boyd and Adams in a new wave of St. Louis prospects flowing northeast to Champaign.

"From going over the recruiting trail, I think it’s pretty neat when you walk into a school and see the Fighting Illini colors, uniforms, people who have gone to our university," Smith said. "That’s an area that we will continue to hit hard and we have gotten a good response from it.”

JuCo, walk-on efforts

Tim Beckman's staff recruited 20 junior college prospects during three recruiting class from 2013 to 2015 in a plan focused on winning games in the short-term.

A few worked out, including Jihad WardGeronimo Allison and Carroll Phillips. But a large majority made minimal impact (read Ryan Easterling's analysis of that) other than filling a spot on the three-deep. And focusing so much on junior college prospects rather than building with prep prospects has left Smith with an unbalanced roster (read Jeremy Werner's analysis of that) that currently includes just 23 scholarship upperclassmen for 2017. Smith's staff is recruiting several junior college prospects. Quarterback Dwayne Lawson committed this week, and linebacker Delshawn Phillips is visiting this weekend. But Smith to said he won't take a wholesale approach on JuCo prospects.

“As a base rule, we’re going to build our program with high school athletes coming out," Smith said. "But I think as a bridge, as an additional add-on, yes, JC players can help you a little bit. We are looking at a couple. We have looked at a couple junior college players. But again, it will always be just adding a few.”

Smith also wants to beef up the Illini's walk-on program, which has done well for programs like Wisconsin.

“An area that we need to improve on is the walk-on program too," Smith said. Everybody can’t initially necessarily go on scholarship, but you can earn it. There are some athletes and we want to get those numbers up around here.”

New look at quarterback

Lawson's commitment is further proof of what Illinois now prioritizes at quarterback: athleticism. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Garden City CC transfer, who left Virginia Tech in August, adds to the Illini's growing arsenal of dual-threat quarterbacks. Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch will miss spring ball, but his tough running won over the staff before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Marian Catholic three-star quarterback Cam Thomas, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, will arrive this summer. 

Smith, a defensive-minded coach, said mobile quarterbacks give defenses headaches.

“I just think looking from a defensive point of view it’s a lot harder to defend," Smith said. "You (as a defense) would like to defend an offense that’s one dimensional that’s going to pass and a quarterback that primarily has to stay in the pocket to have success. When you have a guy that’s a little bit more mobile, that can cause you a lot more problems whether that’s using that mobility to move around to pass the ball or to take off and run when you need to. Those are the reasons we’ll be trending in a little bit different direction.”

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