What a week for Illinois football recruiting. The Illini staff landed four of its top targets and filled some big needs. Plus, it leapt from the mid- to late-50s in the Scout.com national team recruiting rankings to No. 36.
Four-star Peoria (Ill.) defensive tackle Kendrick Green is a huge in-state win over a program (Iowa) that has plucked far too many great linemen out of the Land of Lincoln.
Miami (Fla.) Central defensive end Owen Carney long had been a top-of-the-list priority for Illinois, which perfectly played this recruitment while several SEC and ACC programs slow-played him. He helps re-stock the defensive end depth chart (though it still needs a lot of inventory).
Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain offensive lineman Howard Watkins adds more size and physicality to the offensive line, and Louisville (Ky.) Male cornerback Nate Hobbs is a potential steal. He doesn't have big offers, but his speed and athleticism suggest he should.
With 17 commitments, we can start taking stock of this class. I will address the needs and targets remaining, but for a second, let's break down the geography.
8 - In-state commitments for Illinois, when including St. Louis University High cornerback Tony Adams, who commutes from his hometown of Belleville, Ill. They signed just three Illinois natives last year. The last time the Illini signed double-digit in-state products was 2008. Six of the the seven who play in state are ranked in the state's top-27 (rankings here), and we think Vederian Lowe is ranked too low at No. 40. Green (No. 8) and Ricky Smalling (No. 6) are in the top-10 The Illini could add a third top-10 guy too if Jeff Thomas jumps on board on Signing Day. The Illini haven't signed three top-10 in-state prospects since 2009. The Illini won't put a border around the state, but keeping more power-five in-state prospects -- especially the elite (top-10) players -- is crucial.
3 - Floridians in this class. Illinois currently has 13 Floridians on the roster, but many didn't have many power-five options outside of Illinois. Carney, Carmoni Green and Mike Epstein all had several power-five offers.
2 - St. Louis area products in the class -- and Adams and Larry Boyd both rank among the state of Missouri's top-eight prospects. The Illini currently have just three St. Louis metro area products on the roster.
2 - Cincinnati products in this class. This staff includes The Queen City in its footprint, and adding Watkins and Ra'Von Bonner is a great boost to a roster that currently has no Cincinnati natives.
It'll be interesting to break this down even further in about five weeks -- after Signing Day. Until then, the Illini sill have needs and top targets still on the board to fill those needs.
Available Scholarships: 0-1
Top Targets: Reyondous Estes
Werner's take: Illinois has its long-term option (Thomas) and short-term option (Lawson). But the Illini may not be done with this position. Estes not only would help with teammate Jeff Thomas, but he would add another athletic quarterback to the depth chart. Still, Estes has some academic issues, and East St. Louis already is talking with junior college programs. A source said Illinois is no longer considering fifth-year options. Garrick McGee has confidence in Chayce Crouch, a high-floor option, and is excited at the high ceiling of Lawson.
Available Scholarships: 0-1
Top Targets: Tim Jordan
Prospects to watch: Calvin Tyler
Werner's take: The Illini appear to have the two backs they want. But they would add a dynamic, do-it-all back like Jordan -- though that competition is getting pretty stiff. Epstein and Bonner both had huge senior seasons and offer different strengths. Bonner is a bigger back who has similarities to former Minnesota star David Cobb. Epstein has some similarities to current Illini Dre Brown in that he is an instinctive runner who uses his blocks well and has enough burst to break away for big gains. The Illininhave considered taking a speedy scat back, like Tyler, who can offer even more versatility. But since Reggie Corbin is going to be a sophomore, it's not high on their list of priorities.
Available scholarships: 1-2
Prospects to watch: Jaylond Adams, Jalin Tolbert
Werner's Take: Receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker can't wait for the Class of 2017 to get on campus. Receiver was the Illini's worst position group this season because it couldn't consistently do what receivers first need to do: separate and get open. The Illini need speed, quickness and route running. They also need some guys with physicality to get open against Big Ten press corners. Ricky Smalling will add that from Day One. Heck, he would've started this season. Green isn't as refined, but he'll add a deep-play threat. Smith is a phenomenal athlete but must gain strength and physicality (which is why he likely won't play defense, like Illinois originally thought). The Illini would love to add a slot receiver who can make plays in the open field. This group could take a big step forward, especially if Mike Dudek gets back on the field.
Illinois is the consensus leader for Roberson, who offers versatility to play in the slot and on the perimeter and return kicks. He plans an unofficial visit in January (which could be commit watch time). Illinois also is gaining with Thomas, though he has big academic concerns. But Illinois will take a chance on a rare, in-state playmaker like him. Adams is a great player, and Illinois really likes him. But academic issues also hinder a possible marriage.
Available scholarships: 1
Werner's Take: This is the biggest remaining hole on the offensive big board. The Illini staff got here too late to take advantage of a great group of in-state tight ends, and their options have been limited ever since. But the Illini appear to have fallen for Dorsey, a Florida wideout who has the huge frame (6-6, 220) and physicality to develop into a dynamic tight end. He is visiting the Illini next month, and the Illini are in a great position with him. Illinois would like to get a visit from Paulson, a former WKU commit, next month. Williams received an Illini offer this fall, but it's been pretty quiet around his recruitment.
Available scholarships: 2
Werner's Take: Illinois is off to a great start to upgrading the offensive line, where it needs to add size and physicality to compete in the Big Ten. Boyd may start next season at guard. Lowe, a likely future strongside tackle, needs some technique work but his pure power and quick feet should put him high on the team's second unit from the start. Watkins, who projects to quickside tackle, will need time to develop. But as an early enrollee, he is starting that process soon. Illinois is getting stronger and meaner up front, and Fedd-Jackson and Palczewski -- who both plan January decisions -- would only fortify a more physical foundation up front. Mixon is more of a project but also is a huge body. If they finish this off the way they want, Luke Butkus may be the happiest position coach on Signing Day.
Available scholarships: 2-3
Prospects to watch: Christian Sampleton
Werner's Take: Carney was a huge add. He and Oladipo are legit Big Ten defensive linemen who add size and athleticism on the edge but also eventually should provide versatility to switch inside on passing downs. Still, this remains a huge hole on the roster due to the losses of Dawuane Smoot, Carroll Phillips and Gimel President. Yet, many of the Illini's top options are still on the board. The staff, especially Smith, loves Roundtree, but they'll have to beat out Indiana to get him. Callendar is a big of a project and is thin, but he has the length and athleticism that the staff likes. He took an official visit earlier this month to Illinois, his lone Big Ten offer. Bagner is visiting in January and could provide immediate help. Illinois just offered Pate, so they're even further widening the net. If Illinois has open scholarships in the spring, expect them to hit the grad transfer market -- hard.
Commits: Kendrick Green
Available scholarships: 0-1
Top targets: n/a
Werner's Take: Replacing Chunky Clements and Rob Bain isn't easy, but the Illini have a lot of promise at this position -- especially after landing Green. Plus, Clements and Bain both lost their starting spots to freshmen at some point, so how much will the Illini actually lose? Rising redshirt sophomore Jamal Milan has the potential (due to his strength and athleticism) to be a star and a pro -- he just needs to remain healthy. Rising sophomore Kenyon Jackson is very short for the position but powerful and athletic with advanced technique for his age. Rising junior Tito Odenigbo and rising sophomore Tymir Oliver are similar physically. Neither is a phenomenal athlete but a big body that is tough to move. One could move out to defensive end to add depth. That's not a bad four-deep, and Green looks like a future teamp captain and defensive leader.
Available scholarships: 0-1
Top targets: James Knight
Werner's Take: The Illini have added some short-term (Phillips) and long-term (Mondesir) help to an already solid depth chart at this position. Despite the loss of Hardy Nickerson, the Illini look to be in solid shape at linebacker, especially with the emergence of Tre Watson. Bill Cubit's staff did a nice job of adding linebackers in the Class of 2015. Dele Harding and Jake Hansen look like future starters. It's a big offseason for rising junior Julian Jones and rising redshirt sophomore Justice Williams, who will be compete with Harding and Hansen for playing time, but both have the raw tools.
Phillips, an athletic hard hitter, will start at middle linebacker. Mondesir fits the mold of what the Illini want: length and speed. The high school defensive lineman just will need some time to develop. Illinois didn't plan on adding many linebackers, but they have really fallen for East St. Louis linebacker James Knight. While he is undersized and a bit of a 'tweener he looks like a future special teams stud and could fit in at weakside linebacker. Plus, he may help with Thomas.
Available scholarships: 1
Werner's Take: Illinois feels it got a steal in Hobbs, whose speed and athleticism certainly suggest he should have had more power-five interest. But he also addresses a huge need at a critical time. The Illini's secondary targets are flying off the board with Quran Hafiz (Indiana), Antwan Collier (UCF), Devin Butler (Syracuse) and Keisean Nixon (South Carolina) picking other schools. Also, Cotton never visited this fall and now looks even less likely.
Their biggest target is Cotman, a former Tennessee commit who visited North Carolina this month. The Tar Heels are considered the leaders, but a visit to Illinois would be huge. Also, Maxwell may visit next month but Iowa and UCF are considered leaders. The Illini have scoured for junior-college prospects who can help immediately but shouldn't reach just for depth. They need playmakers, and they can always look to add a grad transfer this spring. This will probably end up the position that leaves Illinois uneasy after Signing Day. But Illinois should prioritize a more talented player at another position rather than reaching for need here.
Top targets: Tucker Day
Available scholarships: 1
Werner's Take: Illinois offered Tucker Day on Wendesday. The timing was curious given that Day took an official visit earlier this month and left discouraged after not receiving an offer in Champaign. But the offer is his best (Rutgers has offered as well) and Illinois will make a big push now. Day plans to return to Illinois for an unofficial visit before Signing Day.
Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner makes his just-for-fun predictions of who will join the Illini in the Class of 2017, on top of the current commits
Running back: none
Wide receiver: Reggie Roberson, Jeff Thomas
Tight end: Louis Dorsey
Offensive line: Joshua Fedd-Jackson, Alex Palczewski
Defensive end: Ernest Bagner, Daniel Callender
Defensive tackle: None
Linebacker: James Knight
Defensive back: none
Punter: Tucker Day