Team recruiting rankings aren't always indicative of success, but Jeff Thomas is the Illini's path to a possible top-30 (and maybe if everything goes right, top-25) national class. As has been written here for months, Thomas has big academic concerns. But East St. Louis currently remains marginally hopeful he will be an NCAA qualifier. Many have their doubts. Regardless, Thomas, who likely will announce his decision on Signing Day, is a generational type playmaker in this state. There is confusion among who is still a possibility in his recruitment. Are Mizzou and Alabama in it? Depends on who you ask. But there's no doubt Illinois is a major player -- if not the leader. Even if Illinois has to wait for him, his commitment would be a huge statement get for Lovie Smith's staff -- and he'd be a heck of a weapon on the field.
Illinois has landed two very, very good defensive ends in this class so far in Owen Carney and Olalere Oladipo. But the Illini still need a ton of help at the position. Landing Bobby Roundtree would give Illinois three edge rushers with next-level potential. Smith has taken a keen personal interest in Carney. He visited the Largo (Fla.) prospect during the bye week. He sees Roundtree as a Julius Peppers-like athlete who fits exactly what he wants on the edge. But Smith will have to beat out Indiana, which has forged a great relationship with Roundtree.
Illinois is off to a great start in rebuilding its offensive line with three big, physical players: Larry Boyd, Vederian Lowe and Howard Watkins. But the Illini want more. They were the first to offer Alex Palczewski and hope that ultimately gives them the edge. Palczewski was a late riser, due to a neck injury his junior season, but Illinois quickly identified his rare mix of size, agility and tenacity. Since his Illini offer in November, Palczewski has received offers from Syracuse and Vanderbilt. He plans a January decision.
Looking for a late surprise? This year's Ke'Shawn Vaughn or Dele Harding? C.J. Cotman may be it. The Clearwater (Fla.) Central Catholic athlete recently decommitted from Tennessee, though it seemed like the Vols' choice. He took an official visit to North Carolina this month, and the Tar Heels are considered the leader. But he didn't commit yet and appears willing to take other visits in January. Illinois has piqued his interest. Smith knows him from his days in Tampa, and Andrew Hayes-Stoker visited him early this month. Cotman at least seems intrigued by the Illini. If they get him on a visit, the Illini have a real chance. Cotman likely would play cornerback but could play slot receiver or H-Back as well.
Yes, Illinois already has two good running backs in the Class of 2017. Yes, Illinois has bigger needs at offensive line, defensive line and secondary. But Illinois simply needs talent, and Tim Jordan is a dynamic playmaker. He's underrated on this site -- proven by recent offers from Illinois, North Carolina and Tennessee. He is a bit more dynamic than the two current Illini commits. He barely slows when making cuts and can take it to the house at any time, but he also has the size to make plays between the tackles. Illinois has a lot of work to do for the Western Kentucky commit, but Smith and Hayes-Stoker visited this school this month and at least piqued his interest.
- Reggie Roberson: The Texas wideout has long been a priority for receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker. He would add much-needed speed at the slot and in the return game.
- Joshua Fedd-Jackson: The stout, physical New Jersey interior offensive lineman visited this month and plans a trip to NC State this month.
- Ernest Bagner: Illinois needs some immediate help at defensive end, and the California JuCo product told Illini Inquirer he plans an official visit to Champaign in January.
- Daniel Callendar or Deon Pate: The Illini also need more long-term help on the edge. Callendar, an Arizona product, and Pate, a Floridian, would add more depth at a need position. Pate may be closer to playing. Callendar needs a year or two in a college strength program (and cafeteria), but he has great length and athleticism.
- Louis Dorsey: The Florida tight end received hype as an underclassman, but he fell off the radar after he did not play football as a junior so he could focus on basketball. Dorsey came back to football, realizing it was his future, but he lost a lot of interest along the way. Illinois has stepped up with an offer and will get an official visit in January. They could close then for a developmental prospect who has a great frame and plus athleticism -- at a need position.
- Tucker Day: Punter is a big need, but not enough to crack the top-five list. Day took an official visit this month, received an offer last week and plans an unofficial visit next month.
- Reyondous Estes: Thomas' quarterback still is a Mizzou commit, but he's been leaning Illinois since receiving an offer in November. Still, academic issues are a concern. Estes would be more of a depth piece at this point.
- James Knight: The East St. Louis defender is a bit undersized for a linebacker, but he's an athletic, hard-hitting football player. Illinois is his only power-five offer and should land him by Signing Day.
- Preston Mixon: The Illini have long been after Mixon and are his only power-five offer. Though, they seem to have prioritized others more, including Fedd-Jackson. But if Fedd-Jackson doesn't pick Illinois soon, expect Illinois to host Mixon for an official visit next month.