Illinois hosted more than 50 players for its Specialist Camp on Thursday. But the Illini staff put almost all its recruiting attention on Caleb Griffin.
The Danville (Ill.) Class of 2018 kicker impressed Illinois special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky at Saturday's Lake Forest College camp, where the two had a lot more interaction time than Thursday's crowded camp. But the Illini still made it a point to showered Griffin with attention.
"Saturday there was about 10 of us (kickers and punters), so there was a lot more time for one-on-one with Coach Ligashesky," Griffin told Illini Inquirer. "There were a lot more people today, but he and (Illinois special teams analyst Dean) Hogan introduced themselves. I talked to him and Coach Hogan, Coach (Mike) Phair and Coach (Luke) Butkus. I could tell form the start they were making a push toward me. That made a good first impression on how that camp would go."
When the players hit the field, Illinois brought out the big gun: Lovie Smith. Griffin had met the Illini head coach briefly on Saturday. But this time, Smith's conversation offered Griffin more than just small talk.
"He asked me how many Illini games I'd been to growing up," Griffin said. "I told him I'd been to a few as a kid and one more in high school. He then said, 'It'd be nice to have you here in the stadium every weekend for us.' I thought, 'This was it.' I just thought I had to perform well."
So, how'd the camp go?
"I performed really well," Griffin said. "I punted the best I have before. Had some huge punts. Kickoffs, I thought I had the best kickoffs at the camp. Field goals, I didn’t make the finals, but I was smooth the whole day. I only missed two on the day and felt really good about how I did.”
Illinois is very, very interested in Griffin, who the Illini think can make an impact on field goals, punts and kickoffs.
"Coach Ligashesky pulled me over," Griffin said, "and he said, 'I’d like to tell that you’re the guy I want here. You're the guy I want.'"
But Illinois did not extend a scholarship offer on Thursday. The Illini are in a numbers crunch for specialists.
"(Junior kicker) Chase (McLaughlin) has two years left," Griffin said. "So Coach Ligashesky told me, 'I want you here, but you’re most likely going to have to pay your first year,' so I’m pretty sure he offered me a preferred walk-on today. That’s basically what I got today. I’m glad I got it. That’s the first time a coach has told me he wants me on his team."
So Illinois is offering Griffin -- who plans to camp at Iowa and Wisconsin during the next few days -- the chance to walk on and earn his scholarship. But other programs are mulling a scholarship offer to Griffin, including Bowling Green, Ball State and Northern Illinois
"Bowling Green was going to offer me Wednesday night, but then another kid they said his kickoffs were better," Griffin said. "They offered him but said if he doesn't commit by this weekend that they'll offer me. Ball State, I went to their camp on June 2. I didn’t miss a field goal there. They have a specialist camp (Thursday). If they don’t find anyone better, they’re going to offer me (Friday). I went to Northern Illinois yesterday, and their head coach told me they’ll offer me on Sunday.
"I’ve been to six camps this summer. I’ve made 87 percent of my field goals. I feel I'm capable of a scholarship somewhere. I also know I’m a kicker and those are hard to come by."
So what if the MAC programs offer? Would he rather have a scholarship in the MAC or a walk-on spot in the Big Ten?
“I like the sound of knowing I’m on scholarship," Griffin said. "But at the same time if I get a MAC scholarship, and Illinois offers a preferred walk-on, it'd be tough for me not to go to Illinois. My family is at a place where we can afford a year of school and then have three years on scholarship to play in the Big Ten. That’s tough to pass up.”
Griffin's relationship with Illinois started when Butkus and Phair came to Danville to recruit teammate Julian Pearl, who committed to the Illini this spring. Saturday's camp at Lake Forest caught the Illini's eye. Thursday's camp earned him an opportunity to join Pearl in Champaign.
"It means a lot," Griffin said. "All my family is in Danville. I played in Champaign for years in the Big 12 Conference. There already are two kids from Big 12 that are committed to Illinois (Pearl and Peoria quarterback Coran Taylor). It'd be nice to have opportunity to play there and to play for my home state."