Not many Illini fans were expecting any additional signees in 2017 (except possibly a punter), but Isaiah Gay surprised a lot of people on Friday when he announced his commitment to Illinois and signed with the Illini.
But Illinois executed a very under-the-radar pursuit for the North Carolina native. Not only was Gay's signing surprising, but he even took a stealth visit to Illinois this past weekend. Ultimately, though, he felt Illinois was the program that offered him the whole package both on and off the field.
"I chose Illinois mostly because they told me I would receive early playing time," Gay said. "It's also a big conference school and specializes in my major of mechanical engineering."
Gay told Illini Inquirer that other schools were looking to play him at linebacker, which he felt was out of position for him. Illinois, however, saw him as a defensive lineman, and that was a big draw for him.
"What really brought me to Illinois was that they showed me exactly where I was going to (play)," he said. "Other colleges had me out my comfort zone at linebacker, but they put me at defensive end, which is natural now. Another thing was that they are an experienced staff who has chemistry so that helps in game and the long run"
As far as statistics are concerned, Gay had a standout senior season, earning co-defensive player of the year honors in his conference. Recording triple-digit tackles with 17 sacks and 25 tackles for loss as a senior in just nine games, Gay gives a lot of the credit for his improvement to his coaches' guidance.
"Playing was the easy part," he said. "My coach gave me every nugget that I needed and told me what it really took to get at the next level. The motor and the heart behind it. Some technique went into (my jump) as well, which came from camping all summer."
Despite a phenomenal senior season, Gay flew under the radar for most of the recruiting cycle. With his decision likely to be Elon just a couple weeks before signing day, late interest from Illinois and East Carolina caused him pause, and he decided to continue to evaluate his options.
"It was a little overwhelming to be honest," he said, "almost like a dream. I just had to make a quick but sure decision."
Illinois' interest in the North Carolina prospect is yet another James Kirkland special. The long-time scout for Lovie Smith came across Gay's tape and passed it along to Smith and Defensive Line coach Mike Phair. The rest is history.
"Coach Kirkland discovered me, but Coach Phair reached out and showed interest," he said. He's the defensive line coach, so it was important to build a relationship."
As previously mentioned, Gay took a visit that was relatively low-key. But while on campus, he got a chance to interact with the Illini's four early-enrollees, too. That experience along with his tour of campus gave him a good feeling about his future home.
"I just met the ones that enrolled early," Gay said of interacting with his future teammates, "but I'm excited to meet my class and get to work."
Gay continued, "I liked how they have a transit system on campus. Because of the distance, I can't bring a car from home. Everything football wise is walkable, too."