Best prospect - offense
Chicago (Ill.) Brother Rice wide receiver Ricky Smalling may not have an elite physical trait. He's not the biggest, nor the fastest, nor the quickest. But he is above average in all those areas -- and simply competes and produces at an extremely high level. Smalling fights for separation and the ball better than most receiver prospects in the country. He finished 230 receptions (4th all-time in IHSA), 4,426 receiving yards (2nd all-time in IHSA) and 43 receiving touchdowns (2nd all-time in IHSA). He will make an immediate impact at Illinois.
Best prospect - defense
Peoria (Ill.) defensive tackle Kendrick Green was a no-doubt Division I prospect at this time last year -- but as a center. He was a good prospect at a non-premium position. But then teams worked out Green at defensive tackle and saw a higher ceiling, and then Green lived up to that potential with a monster season on defense to help lead Peoria High to its first state championship. Green has a devastating first step off the line of scrimmage, and the stud high school wrestler has advanced hand-fighting technique to disengage from blockers. He fits perfectly into Lovie Smith's one-gap, disruption defense. While he'll need to add strength, Green could be at the core of Lovie's rebuild -- both as an on-the-field standout and future team captain.
Best out-of-state prospect
St. Louis (Mo.) Trinity Catholic guard Larry Boyd had no desire to visit Illinois, but he was convinced to tag along one day last July. Boyd moped around for a while until he sat down with Lovie Smith. After a 45-minute meeting, Boyd's opinion of Illinois and his entire recruitment had changed. Two weeks later, Boyd re-visited Illinois and surprised his high school coach, Cory Patterson, midway through that he wanted to commit. Patterson assumed he meant to Missouri and said that he'd get a Tigers assistant on the phone. Boyd told his coach, "No, here." Boyd committed to Smith and the Illini following a night training camp practice -- choosing the Illini over Missouri, Oklahoma State and Arkansas, among others. The 6-foot-5, 330-pound senior is built like a brick wall and could have cracked the two-deep for Illinois last year. He must continue to hone his technique, but he is the type of nasty, physical Big Ten lineman the Illini need to produce in a power-run game.
Best scouting find
Within days of watching Alex Palczewski's senior film, Illinois got him on campus and offered. The Illini were the 6-foot-7, 260-pound senior's first offer. Why? Well, Palczewski suffered a neck injury early in his junior season and the recovery kept him from working out on the spring and summer camp circuit too. But Palczewski's senior film launched him from an unknown to one of the country's top-50 offensive tackle prospects immediately. To its credit, Illinois discovered Palczewski and launched his recruitment into a different stratosphere, earning him offers from Vanderbilt, Syracuse and North Carolina. Palczewski returned the favor by committing to the Illini after a two-month whirlwind recruiting process.
I guess we can't call Louisville (Ky.) Male cornerback Nate Hobbs a "sleeper" anymore on this site. Hobbs now ranks as the No. 41 cornerback on Scout.com but is a two-star at competing services. The Scout evaluation is more accurate. Hobbs didn't have any power-five offers. He was committed to Western Kentucky before flipping to Illinois in December. But his film shows a no-doubt power-five talent. Hobbs has elite speed and quickness and plays with physicality. He also has decent height and good arm length, two more qualities that Lovie Smith wants in a cornerback. Illinois saw him in a camp and loved him but was a bit puzzled why he didn't have more interest. When they saw him play in a game, they didn't care anymore and made him a bigger priority, especially after Antwan Collier decommitted. Scout.com Midwest Recruiting Manager Allen Trieu said Hobbs could be "the steal of the entire Big Ten Conference" during this recruiting cycle.
Biggest project - offense
Chicago Heights (Ill.) Marian Catholic quarterback Cam Thomas is a very toolsy prospect. He has elite speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash), good length (6-foot-3) and a solid arm. He also has impressive intangibles, including leadership and intelligence. But he's still pretty raw, due in large part to the talent -- or lack thereof -- around him at high school. Marian Catholic went 2-16 the last two years despite having a Big Ten quarterback recruit. Most of Thomas' former MC teammates transferred to Homewood-Flossmoor, a powerhouse, leaving Thomas to either 1) throw to ineffective targets; or 2) run for his life. Thomas showed well throwing the ball at summer camps, but he didn't gain much experience in the pocket during actual games. Quarterbacks almost always need time to adjust to the college game, especially the terminology and reading defenses. But Thomas simply needs as many reps as possible. While he could provide a playmaker if rushed into duty, he likely won't be ready to compete for a starting spot until 2019. Rockford (Ill.) Auburn offensive lineman Vederian Lowe and Bolingbrook (Ill.) wide receiver/defensive back Kendall Smith also received consideration for this. Both have impressive physical traits, but Lowe needs a lot of refinement and Smith must add strength and physicality.
Biggest project - defense
Another camp find, Chicago (Ill.) Brother Rice linebacker Marc Mondesir has great physical tools, including a great frame and elite speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash). He also has a lofty ranking on this site (top-50 outside linebacker). But Mondesir played mostly defensive line in high school and will take some time to get accustomed to playing linebacker, though he did look smooth in drills during summer camps. Illinois is pretty deep at linebacker, so it can be patient with Mondesir. Huntley defensive end Olalere Oladipo also received consideration for this spot. While Oladipo may be rushed into early playing time and while he has the physical traits to compete in the Big Ten, he's still fairly raw football player who relies on his size and athleticism. Dawson DeGroot and Bennett Williams will both need time to add strength, but both are pretty refined safeties.
While Smalling and Kendall Smith get credit for being "the first" to commit to Lovie Smith -- both did it simultaneously following an Illini spring practice in April -- Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas running back Mike Epstein runs away with this honor. He was committed to Illinois for 545 days before signing with the Illini. During that time, Illinois fired two head coaches, dismissed an athletic director, hired Josh Whitman as AD, hired Lovie Smith as head coach and went 4-10 during Big Ten play. Bill and Ryan Cubit took a chance on Epstein, who tore his ACL prior to his junior season and his commitment to Illinois, but odds seemed low that Epstein would remain with the Illini through such turmoil and such a monster comeback during his senior season (1,187 yards, 16 touchdowns) that earned him several power-five offers.
Biggest need filled
The trenches: While Illinois needed to add speed all over the field, its inability to win on the line of scrimmage has been the biggest issue since Tim Beckman arrived. While this likely will remain an issue for a year or two, the Illini did a great job of filling the trenches on both sides of the ball.
The Illini needed to add size and strength on the offensive line in this class, and they added it in spades. Boyd and Lowe are each 6-foot-5 and over 330 pounds. While Boyd is more consistent, both have shown a nasty mean streak needed in this conference. Howard Watkins also has a great frame and physicality. His early arrival this spring should allow him to get a head start in refining his technique and footwork too. Palczewski probably needs a year or two to add strength to his massing 6-foot-7 frame, but he moves extremely well and finishes blocks with authority. All four linemen have the potential to be quality Big Ten starters -- and future pros. It'll take some time, but the Illini offensive line could actually be a strength by 2019.
Illinois had a disruptive front four on defense the last two years, but after losing five seniors -- including likely high draft picks Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips -- the Illini needed to add playmakers to the defensive line. And Illinois hit it out of the park. Illinois fortified defensive tackle by landing Green, Deon Pate and Jamal Woods. And they landed three of their top defensive end priorities and added length and athleticism with Oladipo, Carney and Signing Day splash Bobby Roundtree.
The lines will take a few years to develop. But in a few years, the Illini look like they have the potential to have strong Big Ten depth on both sides of theline.
Most glaring hole
Quarterback: Credit to the Illini staff because this was hard to pick. This is contingent on 3-star JuCo Dwayne Lawson, who I reported on Tuesday night still has academic work to do before signing with Illinois. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound dual-threat quarterback was a big-time recruit out of high school but struggled at Virginia Tech both on and off the field. Illinois hopes to add him this summer, but he still has work to do. The Illini hope he could provide an immediate impact, but his JuCo coach Jeff Sims said he thinks Lawson should redshirt and learn a full playbook. Also, Thomas won't be ready to play. With Chayce Crouch coming off a serious shoulder surgery and Jeff George Jr.'s struggles last season, the most important position on the field still has major questions heading into 2017. The good news? The Illini have a lot of great options in 2018.