I follow high school recruiting closely, especially when it comes to prospects whose prep careers are in the state of Illinois. Naturally, I wonder what kind of chance the Illini have at landing some of the state's top talent. I also find myself questioning why those athletes would even consider going some place other than Illinois--we're the state's flagship school, afterall (sorry, Fitzee).
Is there a reason for our five winning seasons in the past nineteen years? Why have other schools closer to Chicago--Northwestern, Notre Dame, even Northern Illinois--been more successful than Illinois during the past few decades?
Do players and prospective recruits like Champaign-Urbana? Is it considered "fun?" Does the location of the school affect recruiting? Subsequently, does it affect fan turnout? In my opinion they seem to go hand in hand.
I grew up in Peoria and, even from there, getting to the 11AM kickoffs still required an early start. The typical start time is eliminating the average fan south of Springfield and North of I-80. Of course, there are the diehards who will go no matter what, but they only account for a small portion of the average crowd. Looking around the Big Ten you see schools located in major metropolitan areas (Minneapolis, Columbus, Lansing, Madison, Lincoln), other schools located in the middle of the state where people can drive from all directions (Iowa, Penn State) and schools located near very large cities (Northwestern, Rutgers, Michigan, Maryland). I don't think it's a coincidence that the three schools left off that list are Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue.
I personally like Champaign, but maybe that's just from growing up in Central Illinois. Do recruits like it? I know people are told, "it's what you make of your situation that determines if you enjoy it", but can more be done to make Champaign attractive to recruits? Beckman is promoting a family concept and recruiting appears to be improving, but ultimately you can only make the "change the culture and help be part of the rebuild" pitch for so long.
The Quinn Oseland commitment to Minnesota stung big time since he was a downstater. It's imperative that Illinois gets those kids specifically. I scanned the rosters of every Big Ten team and here are some thoughts on how they recruit in the state of Illinois. I'll end with some ideas on how Illinois can get back to being on every native's "final five."
This is a school that Illinois shouldn't be losing any natives to. Long-term this will be the worst football program in the Big Ten as they have zero chance in the East Division. They currently have fourteen players from Illinois.
Illinois player Illinois could've used this year: Nick Mangieri. Illinois does have some DL depth now from Juco's, but he would project well here as a LEO.
It seems Iowa raids Illinois every year. In the past ten years, there have been plenty of future NFL players that have chosen Iowa (Matt Roth, CJ Fiedorowicz, Sean Considine, Brian Bulaga, Tony Moeaki).
Illinois player: Reggie Spearman. It was rumored Illinois had this guy, but it didn't work out in the end. Starting LB as true sophomore
They have one player from Illinois and he's a long snapper. I don't think they project as a threat for Illinois recruits even with Mike Locksley there.
A thorn in Illinois' side for years; they seem to always come for our Offensive Lineman. They have an ace recruiter in Darrel Funk who is always in on top Illinois prospects.
Illinois player: Kyle Bosch. Started three games as a freshman a year ago. He could have projected to push Mike Heitz this year and he'd absolutely start next year at LG.
They signed four Top 30 players from Illinois in the Class of 2014. Illinois signed two. They've always been the sleeping giant amongst Big Ten teams and it appears they've finally found their niche.
Illinois Player: The Allen Brothers would have been nice, but Matt Morrissey would have been better. We offered him, but the Lincolnshire Stevenson product opted to become a Spartan.
Eleven players currently hail from the state of Illinois.
Illinois Player: Steven Richardson. Former teammate of Matt Domer's--has the makings of a solid four year player after redshirting this year.
They haven't focused on the Chicago section of Illinois, but rather Springfield and further south to the St. Louis metro area.
Illinois Player: Vincent Valentine. Illinois tried, but came up short for this future All-American.
No comments. Refuse to give accolades to their neat-o coach and his made up "super back" position.
When it comes to recruiting against other Big Ten foes, they are the ruler. What I don't understand, and never will, is why players go there to play one to two years as upperclassmen instead of starting four years at another school.
Illinois Player: Tommy Schutt. A prime example of the above.
I don't know how much James Franklin will focus on recruiting in Illinois as he is more familiar with the SEC and the D.C. Area.
Illinois player: Brendan Brosnan. Of course, bringing up taking a Penn State linemen sends shivers down Beckman's spine now. That all turned out swimmingly.
Purdue has never recruited all that great even during the Joe Tiller days. He just had a great system that allowed his players to succeed. The book is still out on Darell Hazell.
Illinois player: Evan Panfil. A former commit who played as a true freshman. He has already put on thirty pounds since high school and could have Michael Buchanan's career written all over him.
I would be surprised if Rutgers becomes a player for Illinois prep talent. I actually feel badly for them as they are in the same boat as Indiana and are probably guaranteed four conference losses every year before the season starts.
Lather, rinse, repeat when it comes to Wisco's recruiting; recruit skill players from the South, and homegrown Midwestern linemen. Done.
Illinois player: Garret Dooley. High school teammate of Wes Lunt's would be playing more here as he's not even listed on the two deep at Wisconsin.
So what can Illinois do to better appeal to recruits? Win is the easy answer. I see this year as probably the most important year of Illini football since the 1999 season (Ron Turner's 3rd year). Zook by this time already had recruiting classes filled so wins were going to be coming somehow, someway.
If Beckman fails this year, it'll set the program back 8-10 years in my opinion. They have built bridges, but yet another do-over would just raise more red flags for high school kids moving forward.
Regarding the fan experience and Champaign/Urbana--I know ESPN and BTN control a lot of the playing times, but try to schedule at least two night games in future seasons. This always helps fan turnout.
Here's an idea: if we are indeed building in-roads with the high school kids and programs, then let them play a neutral conference game on a Friday night in Champaign. Everybody would stay from the high schools, helping attendance and giving the Illini more exposure. They could also schedule games throughout the day on Saturday, which would lead up to an Illini night game. The Saturday option would allow teams from all over the State to play.
To end, winning will cure and solve everything. It's funny to think as recently as the early 1990's the conference hierarchy was Michigan and Ohio State with the next tier being Michigan State, Iowa, and Illinois. Get the needed six wins this year and the Illini may have something to build on moving forward.