CHAMPAIGN -- To one day reach the bold expectations that athletic director Josh Whitman and head coach Lovie Smith set for the Illini football program last March, Smith needs time to lay a strong foundation in Champaign -- and he started that with his first recruiting class that was announced on Wednesday.
Excitement was gleaming throughout the football office and in the Memorial Stadium press box on National Signing Day, as the Illini pulled in the No. 34 class in the country -- according to Scout.com's 2017 class rankings as of Wednesday afternoon.
That's good for seventh in the Big Ten, and second in the Big Ten West. And it is a mighty improvement from the program's position last year, as they ranked No. 60 overall.
More importantly, it is just a start of what is to come on the field down the road and on the recruiting trail in future classes.
"We are very excited about this recruiting class as it firmly sets the foundation for Fighting Illini football moving forward," Smith said. "Our staff did an outstanding job identifying young men who fit our culture and fill position needs."
"Big plans to put our football team in a position to win championships. I've always said that one of the main reasons we're going to do that would be our coaching staff. As we've gone through this recruiting season, I think that even more."
At the outset of Smith's tenure, he talked about the recipe for success. And a huge part of that is funneling some of the best football players in the state to Champaign to play for the home-state program.
Smith and his staff found success in that even in their first class. The Illini signed 10 players from the state, which is tied for the most since 2003. In that group, they landed two of the top 10 prospects from Illinois, which is just the second time the program has done so in the last eight recruiting classes -- per the Scout.com rankings.
Brother Rice wide receiver Ricky Smalling was a huge get back in April as one of Smith's first commits, along with Bolingbrook wideout Kendall Smith. Smalling is a four-star and a top-50 wide receiver prospect in the class.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1751134-signing-day-spotlight-ricky-smalling "You want your homestate to be great. For a while, Illinois has kinda been like kind of iffy, so I wanted to make them great again," Smalling told IlliniInquirer.com back in April.
The Illini also got a pledge from four-star Peoria HS defensive tackle Kendrick Green, which was huge for them in December. Green is ranked as the fifth best player in the state, and he's No. 22 of all defensive tackles in the nation.
Illinois was able to fend off strong pursuits by Iowa and Minnesota for Green, and Smith talked about winning those type of battles on Wednesday.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1751275-signing-day-spotlight-kendrick-green "When we say we're going to do it with our in-state players, and we need to keep our best players, our best players are wanted by other teams," Smith said. "And for us to make that move, we need to be able to convince our best players in the state to come to our university."
"Kendrick got on board. He looked around and compared us with everyone else, and he chose us. To have a guy like that helped an awful lot. As we go forward to next year's class, as I see it, the state of Illinois is only getting better and better. Each time you have a good football player like that say 'I want to be a part of the rebirth of your program', it has to help."
Speaking of help, Smith talked about what it meant to have guys like Smalling, Smith and Marian Catholic quarterback Cam Thomas selling the program to others in the state.
"So many of our early commitments, at the end, they were the ones. Now with social media, group chats, they're talking throughout. Selling our university as hard as we were as coaches," Smith said. "I think that helped a lot, especially with some of our in-state players that really believed in our vision for how we're going forward with our program."
The Illini will surely look for train-setters in the 2018 class now, and Peoria HS quarterback Coran Taylor is one of the prime candidates for that.
St. Louis gateway
Smith is quick to mention the St. Louis area as a crucial part of his program's future. And it is indeed.
The Illini landed three-star offensive guard Larry Boyd, who was a very important add at 6-foot-5, 310 pounds. He is a top-50 prospect at his position.
Boyd used two words to describe why he picked Illinois back in August.
"The key? Two words: Lovie Smith," Boyd told IlliniInquirer.com. "I mean, there ain't no other coach like him in any program. You got Nick Saban and all those other coaches, but Lovie Smith is the man. He's going to be the man around here a long time. I just wanted to get on the train before it took off. I wanted to be the one to say that I was here when we were winning championships with Lovie Smith."
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1749952-signing-day-superlatives-illini-class-of-17 And Smith talked about the importance of getting bigger and stronger on the offensive line. Boyd was the centerpiece to that effort.
"We have a profile at every position, and we feel like we got that. When you mention size and the type of football we like to play, yes, we like to be able to run the football," Smith said. "In order to run the football, you need a little bit of size and strength. We do feel like we have that."
The Illini did all they could with four-star East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas, who is ranked as the No. 5 receiver in the 2017 class. The electric playmaker chose Miami on Wednesday.
While Thomas will be going down to Florida (if he qualifies), the Illini got a handful of nice additions from the Sunshine State.
Miami Central teammates Owen Carney and Carmoni Green helped Illinois at need positions. Both players enrolled early and will participate in spring ball that kicks off in two weeks. Carney is a three-star defensive end, and a top-50 defensive end in the class.
Green is a top-100 wide receiver, and he was ranked as the ninth best prospect in Miami by the Miami Herald. He committed to Illinois in August, and Carney picked the Illini on Christmas Day.
The Illini also landed 6-foot-6 tight end Louis Dorsey from Jacksonville, who committed less than two weeks ago on his official visit.
And Illinois got a big late add with three-star defensive end Bobby Roundtree picking Illinois over Indiana on Signing Day. Roundtree was the very first recruit Smith visited in person after taking the Illinois job.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1751473-illini-land-3-star-de-bobby-roundtree "In our system defensively, it's about the front four. They're the engine on the defense. We want to be able to get pressure with four guys in an ideal world," Smith said. "No position is more important than the right end position. Bobby Roundtree is a right end for us. So it was pretty important for us to get a player like that, who had a lot of different options."
"We brought Bobby in early. He came in on his official visit through the season. So to have a player like that go through it all and then decide to come here says a lot."
Roundtree is long and athletic at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds.
The Illini also signed Jacksonville defensive lineman Deon Pate, Fort Meyers defensive back Dawson DeGroot, and they held onto three-star Fort Lauderdale running back Mike Epstein. The St. Thomas Aquinas back ran for 1,173 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior.
This staff has a unique sell based on their ties and experience at the next level. It was perceived as a huge asset for the Illini to utilize on the recruiting trail from the beginning, and it definitely has made waves with recruits.
Guys like Smith and Hardy Nickerson help you get in doors that Illinois hasn't recently or normally had access to. That effect is expected to be furthered in future classes, but Smith talked about its outcome in his first class.
"I definitely think it worked in our favor," he said. "Most players would like to go and finish up at the highest level. There's another step from college: The NFL. With our experience we do have -- the facts, reality -- we do have more experience than any staff, NFL experience on our staff. That does mean a lot."
"Did we use that? Of course we did. That's who we are. I think people bought into that and the type of instruction that they're gonna get on a daily basis."