CHAMPAIGN - A month ago in Nashville, Pat Embleton ran into a friend at the American Football Coaches Association. The friend noticed the Illinois recruiting department staffer had a different look to him than he had a year ago.
“He just said, ‘Man you seem happy,’ recalled Embleton, the Illinois director of student-athlete development. “It’s true. There’s just less stress.”
Embleton, a 26-year-old who played tight end at Division III Ohio Wesleyan, is one of just a few holdovers from the Tim Beckman era -- along with director of football operations Tim Knox and recruiting coordinator Nina Baloun -- and was half of the previous staff’s two-man recruiting department.
Boy, have things changed for Embleton and the Illini football program during the last year.
A year ago, Bill Cubit was the head coach with a flimsy two-year deal with no permanent athletic director to back him. Cubit and a revamped staff busted its hump and sold what it could (opportunity to play Big Ten ball and to attend a prestigious university) to put together a recruiting class that finished 60th overall in the Scout.com team rankings and 12th in the Big Ten.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1749952-signing-day-superlat... To Cubit’s staff’s credit, it should’ve been worse. Plus, nine of those players contributed to the Illini in 2016 as true freshmen.
Still, National Signing Day 2016 felt like a sense of relief for Embleton and an out-gunned Illini staff.
The 2017 National Signing Day this past Wednesday felt more like a celebration ... an arrival ... a statement that the Illinois football staff had added some artillery.
Embleton -- who survived new athletic director Josh Whitman’s coaching change by proving his worth this spring during the transition period between staffs -- is now flanked by a beefed-up recruiting staff and the most famous coach in Illinois history.
“Man, it was fun,” Embleton said after Illinois officially announced a 24-man class that ranks 34th nationally by Scout.com and seventh among Big Ten programs. “When you have Lovie Smith as your head coach, people pick up your phone calls. You have a fighting chance every time you step in a school.”
'Get with the times'
Before Smith arrived, Illinois still operated like a low-level power-five recruiting operation. Embleton and Scott Yielding -- now a defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator at his alma mater, The Citadel -- manned a two-man recruiting department. Illinois still gave one of its assistant coaches the “recruiting coordinator” title, which is becoming an outdated concept among most power-five programs.
But the arrival of Smith -- and a big financial investment from Whitman ($4 million salary pool for Smith's staff) -- helped Illinois catch up to its competitors.
Embleton is now one of six full-time employees in the Illini personnel/recruiting department.
“There’s just a lot more help, a lot more eyes,” Embleton said. “Just looking through things, sifting through information, contacting coaches, going through transcripts. There’s not just two of us. There’s six of us now. In terms of the process, it’s just a lot more sped up. And in college football, the sense of urgency is big-time. I think having a bigger department, it just helped us get with the times.”
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1700113-travis-perry-illini-... Illinois literally constructed new offices within the football facility to house the personnel department, headed by director of player personnel Josh Sternquist, who oversees all aspects of the department.
Embleton, the director of scouting, is a point man for organization, scheduling (where coaches go and when) and academics. Baloun executes much of the travel and booking.
“On one day, (defensive line coach) Mike Phair was on four different flights to see four different kids in four different states,” Embleton said. “It’s just a lot of planning, organization and communication. Communication was the biggest thing too. It’s the biggest key for us.”
Travis Perry is the football program’s in-house graphics department. Almost every single graphic you see on the team web site or any “edit” tweeted by an Illinois recruit came from Perry’s computer. Nate McNeal, director of high school relations, is in constant contact with high school coaches and advisers to sort schedules and sift through transcripts. Then there’s James Kirland, the Illini’s in-house NFL scout.
Before Illinois added four additional full-time employees to the department -- which also includes interns -- assistant coaches assumed many of these duties, on top of coaching and talking to recruits.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1697868-q-a-illini-recruitin... "A lot of it on the last staff was calling the coaches and organizing on top of going back to the phone at night and hitting up all the kids," Embleton said. "Whereas now, we took a lot off the plates and just say, ‘Hey, you’re set to be there at 7 a.m. and here at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Here’s your schedule for tomorrow. We’ve talked to the coaches. Here’s their cell phones if you need to talk to them.’”
The staff, especially Kirkland, also allows the Illini to cast a wider filter in recruiting. More eyes mean more time to dig through find some potential gems.
NCAA rules prohibit staffers who are not assistant coaches to “evaluate” prospects, which means that Kirkland and his staff cannot put a grade on a player or fill out an evaluation report on a prospect. But they can tell a coach that they should watch a certain prospect.
“That’s what we do,” Embleton said. “We’re the filtering process.”
That process helped Illinois find under-recruited talents in this class, including Mt. Prospect offensive tackle Alex Palczewski, Louisville (Ky.) Male cornerback Nate Hobbs, Jacksonville (Fla.) Ribault tight end Louis Dorsey and Hueytown (Ala.) defensive lineman Jamal Woods.
"(The scouting department) played a big part in it," Smith said. "Everyone has a role. It's the same as if you're an offensive or defensive staff. Everybody has to find what their responsibility is and you go to work from there. You don't care about who's getting credit. And in the end, in order to sign a player, you have to identify that player. Our recruiting staff started that (process). From there, you have to get approved (by the coaches). A typical player has to get approved by our recruiting staff, our position coach, and the coordinator of that position. You have to go through all these different channels before you're getting an offer. That's how we do it."
'What do we got tomorrow?'
The biggest questions following Smith’s hire involved recruiting. Would a guy who hasn’t recruited since 1995 (as an Ohio State assistant) understand how to recruit in a changed climate two decades later? More importantly, would he have the desire to hit the trail as hard as Harbaugh, Meyer and now Fleck?
Smith answered those questions pretty emphatically on Wednesday. He did it even sooner within the football facility.
“I wasn’t shocked that he worked,” Embleton said. “Man, he grinded. I was more shocked that when we went out on home visits, he was like, ‘Hey, I want three home visits my first week. I want to be put to the grind.’ On a weekend we didn’t have official visits, ‘I got to be out somewhere.’ He was like, ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry.’”
Behind Smith’s stately demeanor is the fire of an ultimate competitor. Don't mistake the laid-back personality. Lovie -- who won two NFC Championships, one as the St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator and one as the Chicago Bears head coach -- loves to win. That includes in recruiting.
Just as he asks his players to put in the work necessary to win, he seems to follow that practice himself in recruiting.
“That was the best part about it,” Embleton said. “He just keeps to it. (On Wednesday), we got fifteen 2018 kids on the phone, and he was like, ‘What do we got tomorrow?’ Here I am, and I’m ready to take a week off, and that’s what he said.”
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1752215-podcast-illini-oc-ga... Due to a March arrival, Smith’s staff got a late start to the 2017 class. Most established Big Ten coaches had a year or more head start on some of the top 2017 targets, and even other first-year head coaches (like Rutgers’ Chris Ash or Maryland’s D.J. Durkin) had a three- or four-month head start.
"When you're late, you're a little bit behind. But that was reality," Smith said. "So how we were going to attack it was just attack it from Day One to catch up. We caught up. When you have a staff like we had, we identified the areas and let the coaches know exactly what they were responsible for and we let them go out and do what they do best."
The staff's success -- and impressive hit rate on their top targets -- provides more intrigue for what they could accomplish with the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes.
“It’s not going to be as much organized chaos,” Embleton said. “From April until now, it’s been organized chaos because a lot of this stuff we’re still meshing as a staff and everything. Now, we have a plan going forward. We just do what we did this time a little bit better.”
In reality, the signing of the Class of 2017 was the start of the Lovie Smith rebuild. Last year, he was coaching players recruited by two different head coaches with two different philosophies.
The 2017 roster might have more holes on it than the 2016 team that finished 3-9 overall (2-7 Big Ten). Smith will need time -- and to stack similar classes on top of each other -- to turn this ship around. Illinois is still years away from achieving what Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State (all great blueprints for Illinois) have accomplished during the last decade or two.
But on Wednesday, Embleton was a happy, hopeful man. The stress of last year’s seemingly insurmountable unknown had ceded to the present’s seemingly unlimited possibilities.
“What coach (Smith) said today (in the offices) was awesome,” Embleton said. “He said, ‘I want to start being on ESPN and our hats on the table for four or five kids in a couple years and they’re picking Illinois.’ That’s what we look forward to.”