Last year when the recruiting dust had cleared on National Signing Day, Illinois football had 25 additions. The only problem from a talent standpoint? Eight of them were listed below a three-star ranking. This year, however, the arrow has been pointing up with Lovie Smith at the helm. The Orange and Blue currently have 18 committed prospects, and the remaining slots will surely be filled with more depth than fans have become accustomed to in recent years.
With about two weeks remaining on the recruiting calendar, Illinois has seven available scholarships to spend. There about 12 players remaining on the ‘big board’ who stick out as really good prospects so the coaching staff will be prioritizing certain position groups based on need.
Even so, the offensive backfield looks to be relatively set for the time being. While the quarterback position is one that could use more experienced depth due to the mass exodus last season, the Fighting Illini already have commitments from JUCO Dwyane Lawson and three-star QB Cameron Thomas (IL). Illinois also has several veteran tailbacks returning for the 2017 season, and that established group will be supported by three-star RB Mike Epstein (FL) and three-star RB Ra’Von Bonner (OH). Just about everywhere else could still use some work, unfortunately.
Here’s my attempt at laying out one of several best-case scenarios for the final group.
7. Three-star DE Bobby Roundtree (FL)
The departure of three talented defensive ends makes this perhaps the most dire-looking position group at the moment. The Illini already have two commits from three-star DE Owen Carney (FL) and three-star DE Olalere Oladipo (IL), yet there’s still a huge void on the exterior of the line. Enter Roundtree. Although the 6-foot-5 end is only rated as the No. 171 player from the state of Florida, he’s shown ample ability against both the run and pass to go along with great instinct and football IQ. Roundtree has 21 total offers, although he recently cut his list to just three programs, including the Fighting Illini.
Prediction: Illinois 50% | N.C. State 40% | Indiana 10%
6. Three-star OLB Terez Lagrone (IL)
Lagrone is another East St. Louis guy that would fill depth issues. While the Illini have eight linebackers on roster — and two coming in already — it wouldn’t hurt to have some more bodies at the ready. At 6-foot-3 and 230-pounds, Lagrone is an athletic and strong linebacker that sheds blocks well; he seems to be a guy who can, at the very least, hold his own on special teams right away. Lagrone is rated as three-star prospect on 247Sports, and he holds other offers from Bowling Green and New Mexico (Mizzou is showing interest). Assuming Illinois does push for a commitment in the coming weeks, perhaps all the ESL players will sign during a press conference as coach Terry Hawthorne sits proudly nearby. One can hope!
Prediction: Illinois 100%
5. Three-star DE Zion DeBose (NC)
Debose is a strong and speed defensive end who’s extremely violent on the field. He’s a playmaker that’s very aggressive against the run and would be an asset that could be a staple in the defense for years to come. Holding 16 offers, this former Appalachian State commit has generated interest from a handful of Power 5 programs.
Prediction: Missouri 35% | Illinois 30% | App. State 20% | Pittsburgh 15%
4. Three-star DT Boe Tufele (CA)
This 6-foot-3, 290-pound tackle from California isn’t hot on the Illini, but has shown some interest that, if heavily pursued, might be able to be convinced to join an already impressive list of defensive line commits. Interest from Hawaii and Fresno St. (no offer yet) could have him going somewhere else. Possession of only three D-I offers might make some think he’s purely a ‘needs’ guy, but Tufele is absolutely a quality recruit that punishes opponents at the high school level. If Coach Nickerson stays on it, the Illini have a chance here.
Prediction: Hawaii 35% | Illinois 30% | Fresno State 20% | Northern Colorado 15%
3. Three-star OL Alex Palczewski (IL)
Illinois has 14 offensive lineman on roster with another three already committed, but there’s still a glaring need in the trenches, particularly at tackle. Signing Palczewski would help fill that void while also funneling another talented Illinois native to the flagship school — something that always helps with public perception. Palczewski has a rare ‘keep pushing’ mentality at the high school level; I see many guys that push for five yards and assume they did their job, however the 6-foot-6 lineman never quits before the whistle. Illinois is currently battling Vanderbilt, however with Luke Butkus as the primary recruiter, the Illini should like their chances.
Prediction: Illinois 75% | Vanderbilt 25%
2. Three-star DE Jalen Harris (AZ)
The third defensive end on this list of seven players, Harris is currently committed to the Arizona Wildcats. That makes sense, considering he’s the son of former Arizona All-American and Chicago Bear Sean Harris. Luckily for Illinois, though, Harris’ pledge to the Wildcats seems to be wavering, and he’s already taken an official visit to Champaign this month. Harris is at the upper echelon of three-star territory, so needless to say, he’d be a big addition to the Orange and Blue.
Prediction: Arizona 60% | Illinois 20% | Notre Dame 20%
1. Four-star WR Jeff Thomas (IL)
Not much else needs to be said about the East St. Louis super receiver. He’s a special talent that would give Illinois’ offense some instant credibility. 247Sports’ crystal ball has Miami (FL) as the current favorite for Thomas, however I really do think that he’ll end up committing to the Illini on Signing Day.
Prediction: Illinois 39% | Miami 30% | Louisville 25% | Tennessee 6%