Illinois rolled out the red carpet for the four-star Carterville (Ill.) tight end Luke Ford for an unofficial visit on Friday -- and it started from the moment Ford and his parents arrived at the garage of the football facility.
"Right as we hop out of the car, all of the coaches are there," Ford said. "Coach Lovie Smith, Luke Butkus. Every coach is there Coach Ligs (tight ends coach Bob Ligashesky). There's 20 coaches there, and we shook all their hands and met them all. It was just us there. There were no other kids there. There was no other recruit there. All the coaches came out and we walked to the middle of the field and once we got out in the middle of the field, they played a video for us on this big Illinois screen. It was a highlight reel from their last season, and it was really awesome.
Another example of the Illini's all-out effort?
"Everywhere I walked, the only number on all the jerseys of all the mannequins and the numbers on the TVs was my number, 45," Ford said. "When I was trying on jerseys, every number they had there were all 45. Everything around was just my number. Everything. It was crazy."
Ford arrived at Illinois at about 9:30 a.m. and stayed until 7 p.m. He spent time with the players, including a team bowling expedition. He watched film with the coaches about how they use tight ends.
He also spent more than an hour with Lovie Smith.
"He's a genuine guy," Ford said. "He's humble. He's such a good guy, honestly. The whole conversation with me and him, we had a great time."
Illinois brought out the big guns too. Minutes after landing in Champaign with the basketball team fresh off the Big Ten Tournament, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman -- a former Illini tight end -- met with Ford and his father.
"It was really cool to hear his feedback from when he played with (Illini offensive line coach) Luke Butkus," Ford said. "He loves (Illinois). He said, 'Come. Come play for Illinois.'"
Ford's recruitment has taken off. He now has 15 power-five scholarship offers and more are likely on the way for one of the nation's top tight ends.
"It's crazy," Ford said. "I'm extremely blessed by the Lord. Give all the credit to God. I've just been having a good time with it."
Alabama was his most eye-opening offer.
"I thought that was amazing," Ford said. "It was pretty awesome to talk with the Nick Saban. He called me 'The Gronk' at the camp that I went to. So that just means a lot to talk to him."
Ford -- who doesn't have a timeline for a decision -- said his family plans visits to Arkansas and Georgia "really soon" and will visit Alabama this spring.
Most wouldn't give Illinois a chance against the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma and others. But the Illini's effort has made them a major player for possibly the state's best player.
"That puts them at the top," Ford said. "I'll just tell you that. (The visitwas awesome. It showed that they care a lot about me, and that I'm one of their top priorities, if not their top priority. It meant a lot to me."