The state of Illinois is not fertile recruiting ground. If Florida, Florida State and Miami only recruited high schoolers from their home state, all three would have a shot at winning the College Football Playoff. The same applies with big programs in California, Texas and, to a lesser extent, the midwestern state of Ohio.
Illinois is not that way.
According to Rivals.com, the class of 2018 Illinois high schoolers has no five-star recruits and just four four-star recruits. The Fighting Illini have hardly made any noise at all with the top 15 high school players in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith and his staff have no commitments from the top 15 players in-state, although two of those 15, including the top player in the state,TE Luke Ford, have yet to commit. The Illini are in the mix with him, as are schools like Alabama, LSU, Texas, Oklahoma and dozens of others. Hopes are high and expectations are low when it comes to Ford and a potential commitment to his in-state Illini.
Last year’s 2017 Illinois high school class had just one five-star prospect — he went to Iowa — and five four-star recruits. The Illini have one of those four-stars currently on the roster, wide receiver Ricky Smalling. The Illini have a ton of competition for the top Illinois high school players, and compared to the level of talent in places like Florida and Texas, there is slim pickings for a school that prides itself on the motto, “Our State. Our Team.” That is where Smith comes in. Smith coached in Chicago and in the St. Louis area in the past. He has relationships to those areas closest to Champaign.
Smith is a Texas native. You can still hear it in the southern twang in his voice. Of the 12 commitments for the class of 2018, two are from Texas — and more are likely on the way. The state of Texas has one five-star player, and the next 48 players in that state are four-star recruits, one of which is the gem of the class so far: recent commit DT Calvin Avery.
ICYMI: Lovie gets his highest ranked recruit yet, a 4-star DT from Texas named Calvin Avery. https://t.co/GveLlWnhiP— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) August 5, 2017
Texas’ talent pool and its approach to high school football sets it apart, and Smith clearly has a foot in the Lone Star door.
Smith spent a handful of his coaching years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tampa was Lovie’s last NFL stop before moving to Champaign. He has those Florida connections, too. Of the 12 Illini commitments, six are from Florida, some coming from the Miami-Dade area and some coming from the other side of the state in the Tampa/ St. Petersburg area. Florida must be a place Smith and his staff can count on to bring recruits for his program to be successful. Freshman running back Mike Epstein will be a factor this coming season, and he was the first and easily the most outspoken recruit of the class of 2017, committing when Tim Beckman was still running the program. Epstein hails from Florida high school power St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale.
Balance and flexibility
Sure, it’s nice to have the home-state locked down, but in Illinois’ case, that’s not feasible with programs like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and others considered the juggernaut programs in the region. Even if it was feasible, a squad of just top Illinois players is not likely to outplay some of the best teams in the country.
Lovie Smith and his staff’s backgrounds open up recruiting doors this school has frankly never seen before, and that is critical towards building a winning, resourceful football program.