DeAndre Smith, the new running back coach at Illinois, is a graduate of Missouri State where as a quarterback he was named Gateway Conference Player Of The Decade for 1985-1995. He has had success coaching at Indiana State, Northern Illinois, Miami of Ohio, New Mexico and UNLV.
A native of St. Louis with recruiting connections both there and in Chicago, Smith should be an ideal recruiter for the Illini in those areas. He took a break from recruiting to visit with the media. He's excited to be at Illinois.
"Everything's going great. It's fast-paced, we're in and out of the office checking last-minute recruits, things like that. But everything so far has been really, really good."
He couldn't discuss specific recruits, but the Illini hope to sign solid class February 3rd.
"It's like Christmas for us all over again. We're looking forward to it. We have some last minute shopping going on, and we're just making sure we get the right guys on the needs that we have. We're finalizing that right now."
Since he was signed long after the end of the season, most of his recruiting has been for athletes who are presently juniors in high school. Smith has spent most of his time renewing acquaintences in Chicago and St. Louis. He has some catching up to do, and spending time with his friends actually slows his progress.
"No question. That's probably been the hardest thing because I'm seeing all my friends again. Everyone's excited, so you probably spend more time than you normally do. But it's really good to be back home. I'm excited about that."
Smith replaces Reggie Mitchell, who moved to Kansas after five years on Ron Zook's staff at the UI. Mitchell is an outstanding recruiter and has strong connections both in Chicago and St. Louis. Smith will now be going head-on with Mitchell for top prospects in those areas.
"Actually, I'm looking forward to it. He's done a great job, and I respect the job he's always done. But we've been in the same places, so that part won't be as big a deal for me. I'll know the same people he'll know. So now we've just got to find out if our place is a good fit for kids. Those are the kids we're gonna go after."
The intelligent, well-spoken Smith has a ready answer for the question, 'Why should a talented football player pick Illinois?'
"Obviously, in the state of Illinois, as a state school you want to play for your home state. That's a big selling point. Obviously the education is great. Being in the Rose Bowl a couple years ago lets people know the potential we have here.
"We've had a lot of changes, but those changes are gonna be good for us. The excitement's gonna be back. You want to sell that and be part of that. The tradition that's been here forever, understanding this is a place that's been great for a long time, we're gonna get back to that."
Smith has contacts on both sides of the Mississippi river, so he will probably be working both areas once territories are finalized. This means he will likely be the point man for Rodney Coe, the big running back from Edwardsville who may be the top prospect in Illinois for 2011.
"We really haven't defined it, but since I'm familiar with both areas, it just makes sense for me to do that. So my territory will be Chicago and St. Louis, and I'll probably do some stuff further West towards Kansas City as well. I can go the whole state of Missouri."
Smith has coached six running backs who rushed for over 1000 yards each in his 11 year coaching career, including Michael Turner, Garrett Wolfe and Thomas Hammock. He has communicated with his running back corps at Illinois, preparing them for spring practice starting in late March. He likes what he sees on film.
"Oh yeah, I've watched as much tape as I possibly can. I'm really excited. I got a chance to do a little bit more in-depth, finding some things I think we need to work on a little bit to get us better. Those kids have been real receptive towards that. Once recruiting is over, it's time to get down to the knitty-gritty with those guys.
"When we watch the highlight tape when we bring the recruits in, it gets you excited. All the big plays these guys are making and just know the potential we have to keep making more. My group is a veteran group. I've let those guys know we've got to be the leaders. They're excited about that, and they can't wait to get started."
Smith has to learn new terminology with a new offense, the same as the players. But he knows he will adapt readily.
"Coach (Paul) Petrino doesn't mess around, so I better get it together. But there's a lot of similarities. Football is football. There's gonna be 11 guys. Formation names are gonna be called different, but the overall scheme is something I've been very familiar with."
"We'd like to keep them fresh, so as many people as we can play as possible is gonna be good for us. I haven't been just a one-back guy. If I use 2, if I use 3, it's gonna be fine with me. We have three quality guys right now, and if we can get some of these young guys going we might have to use those guys as well.
"I don't have a preference with it, those guys understand that. It keeps everybody involved when they know they have a chance to play. It will just make us a better unit overall."
Upcoming junior Leshoure came on strong last season, and Smith agrees he is a talented player.
"He had a great game last game. I expect him to be a leader for us to be honest with you. I talked to him about my expectations, and he was in total agreement on his capabilities and the things he can do for us next year.
"He's a dynamic player, and I expect him to play his best football next year. He has size and speed, and I've been really impressed with his knowledge of the game. That should help him play even faster."