No matter where you turn for your Illini news or talk these days there are only two accepted stances when it comes to the state of Illini football recruiting under Lovie Smith so far.
It’s either been "awful, and Lovie and this staff are destined to fail," or "everything is fine, you’re a moron for worrying about it right now."
Both of these are wrong stances to take.
In the comments section here, and on forums elsewhere I’ve seen commenters who express concern over recruiting get jumped on. While I agree with many of those doing the jumping, as the comments tend to be a bit too full of doom and gloom, I believe it’s just as incorrect to tell anybody things are going to be fine.
There is only one truth that we know when it comes to Lovie Smith’s recruiting prowess thus far: we don’t know anything.
Last year’s class was pretty good, all things considered. Lovie got off to a late start and still managed to pull in a class that was 10th in the Big Ten (whether you use the total score or per recruit) and 46th nationally using 247’s composite rankings. This isn’t great, and ultimately you want to see better, but given the circumstances, and the caliber of some players being brought in, optimism was warranted.
It’s also warranted to see some of that optimism fade as we look to the 2018 class. Things are moving slowly. We’ve seen a lot of the staff’s top targets in the state and out of it opting to go elsewhere. Whether you’re talking about Luke Ford going to Arkansas, Devin O’Rourke and Greg Newsome to Northwestern, Quincy Patterson to Virginia Tech, or the most recent decision of Ayodele Adeoye choosing Texas after showing so much love toward Illinois in past months.
Update: Luke Ford has since decomitted from the Razorbacks, however he's in the process of setting visits to places like Alabama, LSU, and Georgia.
These are events that should not be ignored. It’s one thing to walk under a perpetual dark cloud, but it’s not as if sticking your head in the sand is a better option.
Complicating matters is the new early signing period in football. Players don’t have to wait until February to submit National Letters of Intent. They can sign in December. So in past years when you could say there was no reason to worry about a football class in June, you said so knowing there were another eight months until signing day.
That’s not the case anymore.
Going back to Lovie, I believe saying that he’s a bit slow to pull the trigger on players is a valid critique. This staff does not want to offer players until they’ve seen them in person, which is a stance I can respect, but I’m not sure if it’s the best approach in this day and age.
We’ve already seen it backfire on a couple of big targets.
On the flip side, you see this staff offering a lot of players who don’t have many other Power Five offers which immediately makes you flash back to the days of Tim Beckman going after the same kids he wanted at Toledo. The difference this time around is that Lovie and his staff have plenty of experience, and I trust their ability to identify the players that fit their system and develop them a lot more than I do any of the recent coaching staffs at Illinois.
So I tend to give some benefit of the doubt. With the recent commit of Antwain Walker, you see the perfect example of this. The kid had no major offers, and he’s not going to be a four or five star, but he fits the profile of what Lovie’s always looked for in his cornerbacks to his NFL days. Long-limbed dudes who can play press coverage and disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Anyway, I’m getting off course here. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s going to be a while before we can truly judge Lovie as a recruiter. Part of this is due to his late start last year, and another big part of it is that Lovie was in the NFL for so long and has no recruiting track record for us to turn to.
So maybe instead of arguing with each other over whether or not Lovie can recruit, we should realize we’ve all still got a lot to learn about it ourselves.