CHAMPAIGN - Illinois coach Lovie Smith now has two vacancies to fill in his recruiting department. Though the latest was unplanned.
Recruiting assistant Nina Baloun is leaving the program to become the director of on-campus recruiting for new Houston coach Major Applewhite. She will assume more responsibility for the Cougars, a program that is expanding its recruiting department.
Baloun joined the Illini staff in April 2013 under coach Tim Beckman. She was one of the few staffers to survive the coaching change from Bill Cubit to Smith and played a big role in easing the transition.
"When I got here last year, she was one of the first ones I noticed," Smith said. "Tireless worker. Do anything for the program. We're going to miss her in that sense, but this is an opportunity for her so you got to be excited for that, and we are.
"When you know you have good people on the staff, you assume when they're young they're going to move around a little bit. So you always have to have a plan in place in case you lose someone. We have a plan, so we'll just transition into it as soon as she leaves."
Illinois now has lost two of its six full-time staffers in the recruiting department. Remaining are director of football student-athlete development Pat Embleton, director of high school relations Nate McNeal, graphics designer Travis Perry and recruiting analyst James Kirkland.
Smith still hasn't filled the director of player personnel role, vacated by the dismissal of Josh Sternquist whom Smith hired just last spring. But the job posting for the player personnel position expires on Thursday, meaning Illinois is free to make a hire for the position as early as Friday.
The posting describes the position's primary function as "Coordinate, supervise and implement all aspects of the student-athlete recruiting process for the Football program. Coordinate, supervise and implement all aspects of the former player/alumni relations effort for the Football Program."
Sternquist was paid an annual salary of $125,000. Smith said last month that he was looking to go in a different direction at the position.
"We'll have a timeline when it's right," Smith said. "We'll have a timeline when it's right. (Baloun is ) going to be around a little while longer. There's some loose ends we need to tie up. As soon as we can, we'll have someone else there."
Walk through an Illinois spring football practice and it's easy to see why Smith wants to beef up his walk-on program. Illinois is short on bodies.
"(The goal is) to get as many as possible," Smith said. "We want to get our numbers up. I want our roster to be 105 or so (85 scholarship players and 20 walk-ons). We were under about 10 walk-ons in our program last year, so that hurts you. Like right now, our numbers are down. Talking spring game, it's hard to have a spring game when we have three scholarship wide receivers right now that can practice and two others. You need those numbers to get up."
Smith is off to a good start in his walk-on recruiting efforts. Several prospects with Division I scholarship offers have committed as preferred walk-ons in recent weeks.
Chicago St. Rita offensive lineman Jake Stover chose the Illini over scholarship offers from Illinois State, Butler, Drake, Valparaiso and others. St. Rita quarterback Connor Kelly also joined the Illini. Glenbard West tight end Alex Pihlstrom chose the Illini over offers from Dayton, Eastern Illinois and Valparaiso. Lincolnshire (Ill.) Stevenson defensive back/wide receiver Michael Marchese chose the Illini over a scholarship offer from Navy.
The walk-on with the biggest opportunity likely is Pontiac (Mich.) Notre Dame Prep punter Bryce Barringer, who was released from his national letter of intent at Southern Illinois to join a wide-open punting competition at Illinois.
Smith said recruiting walk-ons is no different than recruiting scholarship players.
"We evaluate them the same way," Smith said. "We have guys on our roster right now that have a legitimate shot someday of earning a scholarship. You look for bigger, stronger, faster guys, quicker, football smart. It's the same criteria you use for a scholarship athlete."
Smith sells that walk-ons will receive a chance to prove they're worth a Big Ten scholarship.
"There's an opportunity here based on our numbers for us to see you," Smith said. "Sometimes an athlete gets a smaller-level scholarship and he says, 'I know he can play at that next level.' Come here. We look at them. We don't put the guys in a line and say, 'OK, scholarship guy, walk on.' No, we throw them together and let them tell us who should be where."
Smith compares walk-ons to undrafted NFL free agents.
"You have the draft and then you sign free agents, and then there's another tryout that you need when you need to pick up a few guys that nobody thinks can play," Smith said. "We've had guys in my time, about three players, that come from that far down to starting in the NFL. So, if that's your dream, you got to stay with it. But go to a place though and look at the roster and see if you're going to have an opportunity to get on the football field.
"If you're a player who feels like he can play football and you want an opportunity, what better place and what better time to be here when all of our walk-ons are getting a legitimate look at us for us to be able to see if they can play."