Illinois has a connection to St. Augustine High School in assistant coach Josh Hoekstra. Originally from Illinois, Hoekstra moved to Florida because that is where some of the best high school football is played. Hoekstra was instrumental in helping Dan Disch recruit Darryl Lee for Illinois.
St. Augustine was 12-0 on the season going into its state semi-final pairing with perennial powerhouse Tallahassee Godby. Willie Downs, Corey Gaines and quarterback A. J. Graham are all highly recruited players on the Godby juggernaut. But according to Hoekstra, St. Augustine should have won the game.
"We lost 10-9 in the third round of the playoffs to Tallahassee Godby. We thought we had the game won when we got the ball back with a minute and a half left. All we had to do was run one play and then take a knee.
"We had a fumbled exchange between center and quarterback on the play we ran, and they got the ball back. With no timeouts, they were able to drive down the field and kick a field goal as time was running out. We're still in shock."
Darryl Lee was the leader and captain of the team, and he took it really hard. But the loss didn't detract from an outstanding season.
"Darryl had a good year, he really did," Hoekstra described. "He finished with 53 tackles, seven sacks, and 13 tackles for loss. He played defensive end, and he played some tight end as well. I want to say he had 8 receptions for around 150-160 yards.
"A lot of teams were running away from him as he's kind of tough to run at. And he made a lot of plays on special teams. The first game of the year we won in overtime. He blocked the extra point for us to win the game. That kind of set the tone for the whole year.
"He has a relentless motor. He has the ability to get off blocks and make plays in the open field. He just doesn't stop. In practice and games, he was the leader on our team.
"He'll be a Super 24 guy and Super 11. He was one of the best, if not the best, defensive players in the North part of the state. We have the North-South Shrine Bowl, which is played in North Florida. And then we have the Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star game. I'm pretty sure he's playing in both of them.
"He's playing basketball too. He's good. Just like football, he's real active, a pretty good rebounder. He likes to throw his body around. He's a lot of fun to watch out there."
Hoekstra says Lee stands 6'-2" and weighs around 200-205. He won't be a defensive end in college.
"Coach Disch said they're projecting him as a weakside linebacker. Once he gets up there and puts on the weight and learns the system, I'm sure he'll get in there and make some plays."
While it may take Lee awhile to learn the nuances of linebacker, Hoekstra believes he can see the field as a freshman.
"I think he can get on the field playing some special teams. He's a good enough athlete and always hustles. He always seems to find himself around the ball."
Hoekstra knows a lot about the Illinois program, especially the other Jacksonville area players who dot the roster.
"I saw A. J. Jenkins had a pretty good year, so I was proud of him. Pat Nixon will come around when he gets to playing again. Darryl talks to A. J. quite a bit."
It was somewhat a down year for top athletes in Northern Florida this year, but next year the area is bubbling over with prospects. It helps Illinois to have close relationships with people like Josh Hoekstra. His own team was composed primarily of juniors this year, and some may be Illinois targets this time next year.
"Our junior class has another defensive end who plays opposite Darryl Lee who's very similar. I know they're looking at him. His name is Tyterius Lyons. He'll be a bigtime recruit. We also have a wide receiver that really came on in the playoffs, he'll be another highly recruited kid.
"And then both our running backs will be back. And we have a corner who will be a Division 1 guy. The future is very bright. We bring back 9 starters on offense and 5 on defense. So we'll definitely be in the thick of things next year as well."
Darryl Lee visited Illinois for the Indiana night game, and the Floridian experienced unseasonably cool conditions. But that didn't change his mind about the Illini.
"He said he had a great time. I don't think the cold's gonna play a factor in his mind. I think having an indoor practice facility will help. I think he's excited to get up there."