Carterville, Ill., usually only is a destination for John A. Logan Community College students and boaters on Crab Orchard Lake.
But Carterville High tight end Luke Ford has made the town of about 5,800 -- situated between Carbondale and Marion -- an increasingly popular stop for power-five football coaches.
Ford, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound Class of 2018 tight end, received scholarship offers from Illinois, Oklahoma State and Arkansas during a five-day span in late January.
"It's been awesome," Ford said. "It's been overwhelming, but I think I'm handling it well. The Lord's blessed, and I'm just having a good time with it."
Ford's rising magnetism pulled Illinois coach Lovie Smith to visit Carterville last month.
"Lovie Smith flew into Marion airport, and I guess drove to my high school," Ford said. "He came to my high school, talked to my coach for an hour or so, and then I walked in there to my coach. I talked to my coach and he said he and Lovie had a long conversation and he gave me a full-ride offer to Illinois. I was just freaking out. It was just awesome. It was crazy."
Ford grew up a Rams fan -- though now that the franchise has moved back to L.A., he's now a free-agent fan looking for a new NFL team -- but was taken aback by the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach making a personal visit just to show interest in him.
"It means a lot," Ford said. "For the head coach to come down there and take his time out of his day and come visit my school on his schedule, I mean that means the world. And it's in state? That's big. That's huge. It's big because it's the head coach of a major D-I program. But it's also big because it's in-state."
Smith is selling to Land of Lincoln prospects that they can stay in state and make Illinois into a Big Ten power. It seemed to work in Smith's first recruiting class as 10 in-state prospects signed letters of intent last week. Ford is intrigued by the "Our State, Our Team" motto too.
"A lot of people want me to go there because I'm an in-state player, and they don't get many people from southern Illinois," Ford said. "They want to keep all their home-state recruits, so when a college program shows that their head coach has interest in me and makes the flight down here to me? That's big in my book."
Nearby Southern Illinois was the first program to offer, but Ford's recruitment really took off last month when Oklahoma State and Arkansas offered Ford.
"Both excellent programs," Ford said. "Arkansas' an amazing program and uses their tight ends a lot. Oklahoma State's the same. They use their tight ends a lot. It's an honor to be recognized by all three of these teams because they're all power-five. It's great."
It's very early in Ford's recruitment process -- he plans to take spring visits to the schools who have offered -- but here's starting to formulate a checklist of what he's looking for in a program.
"Priorities for me looking for a college are definitely the degree that I want get in," Ford said. "I'm leaning toward a business degree. I want to do something in business or medical. I'm not 100 percent sure since I am a junior. But definitely academics. I focus a lot on the school and watch a lot of film on the schools and make sure they're using their tight ends."
Ford likely will be be one of the top tight end prospects in the Midwest. He has an elite frame, yet is a smooth athlete with great speed for his position. He uses his length to high-point passes in traffic, uses his hands to catch the ball (rather than his body) and it takes multiple defenders to drag him down. Ford also shows a physicality in run blocking. He's a man among boys in Class 4A, so I'm interested to see him participate in select camps. But this potentially complete package of size, athleticism, speed and skill is rare to find -- especially in Carterville, Illinois.
The Illini have a big need for another tight end in 2018 and probably won't have a chance at one better than Ford. They did a good job of getting in early and getting Lovie down to see him. Illinois needs to keep downstate prospects in state, but the Illini should have a lot more top competition very soon.