While some could argue that Jeff Thomas shouldn't be on this list due to academic concerns that likely could have kept him from playing at Illinois in 2017, this one still hurts. Illinois rarely has the opportunity to land a special talent like Thomas, who compares favorably to St. Louis Rams electric playmaker Tavon Austin. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith allowed Illinois to get into this rollercoaster recruitment. Early on Thomas appeared to favor Mizzou and Alabama. Then he publicly rebuked Mizzou, and Illinois became the leader. Then he earned MVP honors at the UnderArmour All-American Game and everything changed. Miami, Tennessee, Oregon and Louisville became heavily involved. Thomas still may not play at the Division I level in 2017, but Illinois was hopeful his addition would be a statement signing -- even if he took a while to get to Champaign.
Naperville (Ill.) Neuqua Valley safety Isaiah Robertson is close with Illini signee Ricky Smalling, and the Lovie Smith hire seemed to put Illinois in an improved position for the top-10 in-state prospect. But Notre Dame -- Robertson's dream school -- offered soon after Smith's hire, and the Irish closed quickly. Robertson is a long, athletic, physical player who would have been an ideal fit as a free safety in Smith's defense.
Illinois offered Joshua Fedd-Jackson in October after offensive line coach Luke Butkus watched the New Jersey native the night before the Illini's game at Rutgers. Fedd-Jackson fit the mold of what Illinois wants in an interior offensive lineman: big and nasty. While others backed off due to some perceived academic concerns, Illinois ramped up their interest, confident Fedd-Jackson would make it academically. They seemed to lead following a December official visit, but NC State came on strong at the end. Illinois did a great job on the offensive line with four big and physical no-doubt Big Ten prospects, but Fedd-Jackson would have made it ost complete offensive line class in a long time.
Illinois receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker prioritized Texas wideout Reggie Roberson since he was hired to Lovie Smith's staff in March. It was the Illini's high interest and an official visit to Champaign that pushed Roberson to decommit from Kansas this fall. Illinois developed a deep relationship with Roberson, including Smalling who visited Roberson in December. The Illini were the heavy favorite heading into the holidays, but Roberson -- who really enjoyed the recruitment process -- blew up with offers around then with Utah, Washington State, Oregon State and West Virginia offering. Roberson was scheduled to take an unofficial visit on Jan. 20, but took three official visits instead. Illinois felt confident heading into the final weekend because Roberson told the staff he likely was going to pick the Illini. But on Monday, the staff felt a gut punch when he picked WVU. The Illini have good receivers, but needed another one, especially a speedy playmaker in the slot. Now, they have a big hole to fill.
I seriously considered putting Brad Robbins here. Michigan's Signing Day offer swayed the Ohio punter away from the Illini, where he took an official visit last weekend. Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky probably would've agreed with me too. Robbins was his hand-picked guy, and now he's likely left without a scholarship punter. But I'll go with Antwan Collier, the one -- yes, one -- commit who got away. Collier surprisingly committed to Illinois in early August without ever having visited Illinois. He fit exactly what the Illini wanted at cornerback: long, athletic and physical. But whenever someone commits without visiting, I automatically put them at the top of the "most likely to decommit" list. Collier decommitted at the end of October, and many expected him to end up with hometown Miami. But a Hurricanes offer never came, and Collier stayed close-ish to home by heading up to Orlando for Central Florida. Illinois rebounded by landing sleeper Nate Hobbs, but keeping Collier with Hobbs and Tony Adams would've given Illinois a particularly strong secondary class.
Ligashesky wanted this guy badly.
The state was deep in tight ends, but Lovie arrived to late for Cole Kmet (Notre Dame) or Jake Marwede (Duke). Christopherson, though, visited Illinois with the new staff, and ultimately picked border rival Mizzou. But Illinois is happy with the tight end it landed (Louis Dorsey).
Illinois went all-out for the Texas A&M commit, but he ended up staying with the Aggies.
The Florida running back called Illinois his leader last summer, only to commit to Arkansas a week later.