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National Signing Day 2016: Examining Illinois' Struggles With In-State Recruiting

I got bored and looked up how Illinois football has done recruiting native sons to play football. It's not pretty.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

National Signing Day is more or less over, at least for the Illinois Fighting Illini according to HC Bill Cubit. So how did we do?

Not great. Illinois' 2016 recruiting class ranks 12th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Rutgers and Purdue. Nationally, the Illini rank 69th, and as much as I want to make a "nice" joke, I really can't. 69th is bad. It gets even worse when you realize that only 5 other Power 5 schools had worse recruiting classes (Kansas State at 72, Rutgers at 74, Boston College at 76, Purdue at 81, and Kansas at 90). That's not company you want to keep.

Illinois finished behind Marshall, USF, UCF, and WMU.

But that's not what I want to focus on right now (mostly because it makes me want to cry). No, I'm more interested in the fact that Illinois only landed one of the top thirty recruits from the state of Illinois this year. And he happened to be number 30.

That is pretty much inexcusable.

Illinois is not a great football program. Honestly, it's not really even a good one. It hasn't been consistently decent for quite some time. But holy shit, that number is terrible. And that terribleness got me to thinking: how has Illinois managed in this regard over the past decade? Why a decade? Because ten years is a nice round number and is over half of a new recruit's lifespan.

Year # of Top 30 Recruits
2016 1
2015 6
2014 2
2013 5
2012 3
2011 5
2010 3
2009 6
2008 5
2007 6

That adds up to 42 of the top 300 recruits choosing their homestate's flagship university. Or 14%. So while 2016 and 2014 are a bit abnormal for the pattern, Illinois is only managing to land fewer than 1/6 of the top prospects from what should be their easiest recruiting ground. Northwestern has 33 over that same time frame. Iowa has 17. Notre Dame has 16. Wisconsin has 13. Missouri has 9.

No one single program is coming in and beating Illinois in terms of pure volume of recruits, which is nice, but it only tells part of the story. I was pretty surprised to see Notre Dame only had poached 16 of that top 300, which made me go and look up how many 5- and 4-star recruits Illinois had produced over the past 10 years. Since 2007, Illinois has cranked out 5 5-star and 65 4-star recruits. That's pretty good for a northern state that isn't Ohio or Pennsylvania.

So what's the problem? Well, Illinois only managed to ink 9 of those 69 blue chippers. The Illini signed one of the 5-star guys (Martez Wilson in '07) and eight of the 4-star (Gabe Megginson in '15, Aaron Bailey in '13, Chandler Whitmer in '10, Terry Hawthorne and Lendell Buckner in '09, Graham Pocic in '08, and Josh Brent and Anthony Morris in '07). That's good for 13%. It gets even worse when you realize that half of those players either never played for Illinois or transferred away early in their careers (Bailey, Whitmer, Buckner, Morris). That type of roster attrition happens at every school, but it's far more magnified at a place like Illinois since the margin of error for the Illini whiffing on recruits is far more narrow than somewhere like Ohio State or LSU.

Where did the rest of those top recruits end up? I'm glad you asked. The other four 5-stars went to Mizzou (Terry Beckner Jr in '15), LSU (Clifton Garrett in '14, now with UAB), Ole Miss (Laquon Treadwell in '13), and USC (Kyle Prater in '10). The 4-stars ended up in the following places: Notre Dame (11), Iowa (6), Ohio State (6), Michigan (5), Michigan State (5), Northwestern (4), Nebraska (4), Tennessee (3), Missouri (2), Wisconsin (2), Penn State (1), Oklahoma (1), LSU (1), Ole Miss (1), USC (1), Kentucky (1), Auburn (1), Florida (1), and Minnesota (1).

Investing more heavily in recruiting the state of Illinois is not going to be a panacea that fixes what has long ailed the program. Illinois just doesn't produce talent on the level of Texas, Florida, and California. It never will. High school football is not the same behemoth in the Land of Lincoln. But Illinois should be capable of doing better than only keeping 14% of the top athletes home. Hopefully this changes in the near future.