What do you make of what Lovie Smith has done in recruiting so far?
Allen Trieu: “This time of year you forget a little bit, because he’s coached through a whole season, that he wasn’t even the coach this time last year. You talk about these coaches taking over now and people ask, ‘How hard it is to get momentum in the next class?’ Well, he took over even later than the average class. So for him to get into this 2017 class and close the way that they have, and they’ve picked off some guys that were under-offered, under-the-radar that they’ve been able to get. But it hasn’t been a class full of those guys. They’ve beat out a lot of schools for some other kids too. So I think when you consider all of the circumstances, I think it’s been a remarkable recruiting job.”
What’s stood out so far about this Illini recruiting class so far?
Allen Trieu: “I think you have to start in state. I know in the past Illinois has sort of spun their wheels a little bit when it came to in-state recruiting. He came in and right away one of his first commits was Ricky Smalling. They’ve been able to get a guy like Kendrick Green who has a lot of offers to choose from and looked like he was headed to some other schools, and then even had some other opportunities come up after he committed. I think they’ve done a great job in state. Then I think the talent evaluation, being able to find some guys under the radar who go from no offers to having an Illinois offer and then we watch him and say, ‘Wow, this guy deserves to be out there with the biggest and best prospects in the Midwest.’ I think those two things have stood out for me when you talk about this class.”
Why do you think they’ve been able to be successful in both the state and a city they’ve really struggled in down in St. Louis?
Allen Trieu: “First and foremost, I think the name Lovie Smith has carried a lot of weight, and I think he’s made it a point of emphasis. But a lot of coaches in Champaign have made it a point of emphasis too. That alone isn’t enough. But I think when you combine Lovie’s name with the work the assistants have done on the recruiting trail, and then I think getting guys to buy in early was huge. If Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith hadn’t committed early, you might not be looking at the same in-state class. I think having those guys buy in right away and kind of set the foundation early for the class and committing when they did was really important.”
Do you think Lovie will get more into Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and the Midwest as he goes along here?
Allen Trieu: “Yeah, I think they will. I think it’ll depend on which kids are interested. For a new coaching staff, it’s important for them to figure out where they’re not going to waste their time. They’ve quickly figured out where St. Louis is a place (they would recruit hard). That’s been very fruitful for them, so I think they’re going to look for some areas like that. I live in Michigan, and I still think Michigan outside of Detroit is very under-recruited, so they can definitely get in there. Past staffs have had some success in Detroit and in Ohio. I would think those are places that they will go. Even into Iowa, Wisconsin and those areas a little bit. I think it’s been shown that you can go up there and get talent even when Wisconsin and Iowa is interested in those guys. I think moving forward you’ll see them get more aggressive there once they get some time to get their hooks into the next class.”
I wanted to ask you about some of the Illini commits in the Midwest. Let’s start with the guy who just committed, Alex Palczewski, a late-riser out of Mt. Prospect. What do you think of him?
Allen Trieu: “Missed his whole junior season with an injury and that caused his recruitment to be a little bit slower, but his senior film is really, really good. You’re looking at a kid who’s 6-6 and even pushing 6-7, 260 pounds, so he has plenty of room to add weight. But when you watch him move his feet on film and see the way he finishes and the way he drives guys, he has a lot of things that I look for when I look for my offensive line checklist. The frame’s there. The athleticism’s there. Then some of the intangibles, the nastiness is there. Offensive tackle is a tough position to project, and that’s because you’re projecting a lot of the time. A lot of the time, the guy’s that make it are guys who are late-risers, not the ready-made guys coming out of high school. I see Alex as kind of having that same path as some of the guys come out of the state, even guys who were tight ends and turned into outstanding offensive tackles.”
One Illini guy who doesn’t get a ton of talk but I know you really like his film is Louisville Male cornerback Nate Hobbs.
Allen Trieu: “I think he’s the steal in the class, and he might honestly to me be the steal of the entire Big Ten Conference. What he brings to the table is rare. About a 6-foot kid, long arms and very athletic. You watch the way he returns kicks on film, the way he goes up and gets the football, and I think you might be looking at a next-llevel kind of guy. That’s the type of cornerback frame and athleticism wise that they’re looking for on the next level. He’s the poster child for me for this class in terms of this staff being able to identify a guy who didn’t have a ton of offers that I think is going to be a really good player.”
With Kendrick Green, it felt like Illinois almost came too late to the party, but they went full-out for him and closed. Scout is the only one that has him as a four-star, but he had a monster senior season.
Allen Trieu: “Yeah, he was in the teens for sacks, 20-something tackles for loss, a guy who really came on late. The reason he didn’t have higher rankings, even with us -- it took us a while -- is that he was kind of viewed as a center going into the summer and that’s not a premium position. We thought he was a good player, but once he showed what he could do at defensive tackle, which is a much, much more premium position because it’s tough to find that kind of talent around here, I think once he showed his ability to get off the ball and he’s an intangibles kid too, that’s when we really moved him up. Credit to him for not holding it against Illinois that he didn’t have an offer early. I think the kids tend to think that first offer means they want you the most or need you the most. But credit to that kid to sticking to the one that fit him the most, not the one that offered earliest.”
What do you think of Ra’Von Bonner, the running back out of Ohio?
Allen Trieu: “I think Bonner’s just a good, solid Midwest, Big Ten kind of back. He’s a right-sized kid that runs between the tackles well. You watch him on film and he has great, great balance. He’s not a kid who goes down from arm tackles or early contact very much. Maybe not the huge home-run hitter but a guy who’s going to be able to grind out a lot of yardage. I think when you look at (Mike) Epstein’s skills and the things he brings in space and his ability to catch the ball, I think you have a nice 1-2 combo there.”
Cam Thomas probably isn’t going to be a guy who makes an impact immediately at quarterback, but what do you think of him for the future?
Allen Trieu: “It’s good that he’s going to have a couple years to develop. Very athletic kid. I think at one point some schools considered him for other positions, but he threw the ball well enough at summer camps and those events to be considered fully a quarterback. By the time he committed to Illinois, the talk of any other positions had fully gone away and he as viewed fully as a quarterback. It’s going to be interesting to see how they run the offense moving forward. You go from a guy like Wes Lunt who wasn’t really a runner to Cam Thomas, who can definitely do some things with his feet. I imagine that they’ll be tailoring the offense around his strengths which is his athleticism and ability to throw the ball on the move.”
Ricky Smalling, the four-star wide receiver out of Brother Rice, I don’t know if there’s an elite physical trait but every time I see him at a camp, on video or at a game, he’s just an ultimate competitor. What do you think of him?
Allen Trieu: “Yeah, I think you hit it on the head there. He’s 6-1. He’s not 6-3, 6-4. He’s not Julio Jones. And he’s about a 4.6 guy on the stopwatch. So I think that’s why he’s a bit underappreciated nationally, but just a kid and I think this term is overused but he’s just a playmaker. He’s got outstanding ball skills. He’s really competitive. He played in a competitive league. He played in a competitive 7-on-7 team. Every time we saw this kid, he was one of the standouts on the field. Ricky Smalling is one of those guys that I think is going to find his way onto the field early in this class.”
Vederian Lowe, an offensive lineman who is huge with a seemingly high ceiling. What are your expectations for him.
Allen Trieu: “Vederian is a kid who is raw. He’s definitely a project. He has the size and physical tools to develop. Randy Taylor was at a camp with me last summer and said, ‘That kid, if he develops properly, can be an NFL guard,’ because he has that kind of size, natural strength and athleticism. If you watch his film, you won’t be blown away. But if you’ve seen him at camps, you’ve kind of seen the progression he made from rep to rep. I think that you can see the potential, but he’s another guy I wouldn’t expect much out of in Year One, maybe in Year Two. But I think down the line, he can be a very good player.”
Has it surprised you what Lovie Smith has done in his first year in recruiting?
Allen Trieu: “Yeah, it has. I thought being Lovie Smith and having the name and having a good staff of guys who have recruited the Midwest and some other areas, I thought they’d have a good class, maybe more toward the middle of the Big Ten, maybe more toward the 50s nationally. But they definitely did exceed those expectations.
“Olalere Oladipo is a perfect example. He’s a kid who had offers from a lot of Big Ten schools, and he chose to stay in state. I don’t know if that’s a recruiting battle that Illinois wins in other years. I think they did a really good job recruiting a lot of these kids. Oladipo is one of those guys who could’ve gone to a lot of other places and chose to stay in state.”