Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Fact or Fiction: Is it time to panic about the Illini football 2018 recruiting class?

It's mid-May and Illinois football has two commits. Is it time to panic about the Illini's efforts?

FICTION. This mostly depends on your 1) propensity to worry; and 2) your trust in Lovie Smith's staff.

Yes, Illinois has just two commitments in the Class of 2018, both within a 90-mile radius of Champaign: Danville offensive lineman Julian Pearl (who will start off as a blocking tight end) and Peoria quarterback Coran Taylor. Only Purdue has fewer commitments (zero) in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, four other Big Ten West rivals are in the top-25 of Scout's way-too-early team recruiting rankings: Nebraska (14), Northwestern (15), Minnesota (16) and Wisconsin (22).

Illinois is behind, but they were behind last year too. They hadwo commitments in the Class of 2017 at this point last year -- I'm not counting Mike Epstein because he was a very soft commit at this point last year -- and that class will end up with twice as many signed prospects as the Class of 2018, which projects to be between 12-16 prospects. So while the Illini were about one-twelfth of the way done with its class at this point last year, they are about one-seventh of the way done with the Class of 2018.  Side note: The small quantity of prospects in the Class of 2018 should temper your expectations for where the class lands in the team rankings, which are impacted by quantity.

The Illini also are much more deliberate in their process than many programs. . Illinois and Minnesota (or Iowa State) have much different approaches to the recruiting process.  They usually do not extend a scholarship offer until they see a prospect in person, which is why most offers don't go out until either 1) a player gets on campus so the staff can get their measurables; or 2) the coaches see them at their high schools during the evaluation period. There certainly is a downside to this process. Illinois might come in late for a prospect. For every Kendrick Green where this ultimately doesn't matter, there may be an Elijah Teague or a Tyrik Henderson who slips by partially due to the later timing of the offer. Though this hasn't happened often, and there is an upside to what the Illini do: they don't take many kids they have doubts about on Signing Day. Illinois proved to be really, really thorough at evaluation, which helped them land some steals in the minds of our Scout team last year (Nate Hobbs, Alex PalczewskiIsaiah Gay). This staff knows what it wants in prospects and is very confident in its evaluations -- even if it causes some nervousness from the outside.

That said, can the Illini duplicate what happened last year? The Illini hit a drought in the fall, which caused some reasonable anxiety. But they went on a hot streak and landed almost every top prospect left on its board: Green, Owen CarneyCarmoni GreenHoward Watkins and Bobby RoundtreeWill that happen again? Probably not. But Illinois also identified some very good and recruitable prospects in the final months of the 2017 cycle: Hobbs, Louis DorseyJamal Woods, etc. Can they do that again? Certainly.

There is concern with landing the state's top prospects. Illinois is not happy with those early results. Luke Ford picked Arkansas after he visited Illinois. Devin O'Rourke picked Northwestern after a long battle with the Illini. Quincy Patterson picked Virginia Tech after just one visit to Blacksburg and several to Illinois. Teague picked Minnesota. Greg Newsome -- which may have stung the football offices most -- picked Northwestern. Losing Tuscola offensive lineman Hunter Woodard to Oklahoma State also hurt given his family grew up big Illini fans, even if Woodard and his family had an urge to get out of the state of Illinois.

Illinois also passed on some in-state prospects who committed to other Big Ten and power-five teams: Jack Sanborn (Wisconsin), Mike O'Laughlin (West Virginia), Bryce Effner (Penn State) and Tyrik Henderson (Minnesota). Again, time will tell on these evaluations. But one thing Smith's staff doesn't seem to care about: public perception. They offer who they think fits their scheme.

Also, there are plenty of great prospects still available. And there is some intriguing talent left in the state: DL Gavin McCabe, TE T.J. Ivy, DE/OLB Terrance Taylor, WR/TE Charles Robinson, WR/DB I'Shawn Stewart, WR/RB Justin Hall and some other under-the-radar names, including Antwain WalkerFotis Kokosioulis and Byron Perkins.

Illinois also has stepped up its efforts in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Texas -- and those efforts usually don't get rewarded until later in the process, when the Illini can pay the way to get those out-of-state prospects on campus for official visits. They did great in the Sunshine State last year and have made good early impressions there again. One of the litmus-test recruits in the class is IMG Academy and Chicago expat Verdis Brown, who has visited Champaign a handful of times and consistently lists Illinois as one of his top choices. The Illini need to start landing some a talent or two from Texas, where they went 0-fer last year.

The key to the class though may be the Illini's performance in the St. Louis area, which is absolutely loaded in 2018 -- and again in 2019 and 2020. Losing Cameron Brown on Sunday to Nebraska stung a bit because the four-star receiver looked like one of the more gettable prospects in the city. Landing Scout 300 defensive linemen Michael ThompsonRonnie Perkins and Trevor Trout is looking more and more like a long shot. But the Illini are on the short list for Scout 300 linebacker Ayodele Adeoye and are square in the mix for three-star safety Dallas Craddieth. Also, Illinois is in the driver's seat for Pattonville (Mo.) quarterback Kaleb Eleby. It's just a matter of if and when they want to close.

Is there reason for concern for the Class of 2018? Absolutely.

This cycle hasn't started the way the Illini hoped. And it's made them re-calibrate their board a little bit and move to the B list a little quicker than expected. 

Lovie Smith was hoping to land a star-studded class but likely is finding out that rebuilds are tougher after going 3-9 in his first season. Illinois should keep swinging for the fences, but it also must add solid, foundational prospects, like McCabe and Ivy. The not-so-ideal start also should cause Smith to reflect on his staff. He probably needs to add a more proven recruiter to help in-state and Texas efforts.

Is it time to panic about the Class of 2018? Absolutely not.

There are still too many top prospects, too many June evaluation camps, too many official visits and too many late risers to think this class is doomed. Plus, the Illini's best recruiter -- Smith -- is prohibited from recruiting off campus until the fall. Smith already proved himself as a closer last year and should give the Illini a boost late in the process.

The early signing period (Dec. 20-Jan. 15) is more than seven months away. The regular National Signing Day (Feb. 7) is nine months away. If in three or five months, if most of the Illini's top targets -- Brown, Adeoye, Cradieth, Eleby, Ivy, McCabe, etc. -- have chosen other programs, go ahead and hit a high number on your panic meter.

But this staff sat in a similar situation last May and signed an impressive class in February. While it's not a given that Illinois will repeat that formula, it's also not a given that they won't. 

Check back in August or late November -- and again in February.

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