Illinois football wrapped up signing day on Wednesday for the 2018 class. The class includes 24 new Illini joining the program that is looking to rebuild itself — or maybe more accurately just build itself — into a competitive program once again in the Big Ten.
This was the third class brought in by Lovie Smith and his staff. New this year was the early signing period in mid-December, which was heavily utilized by recruits to the surprise of many coaches around the country.
Illinois was able to secure some of their top targets early, but struggled to bring together the rest of the class after the early signing period.
Here’s a list of the newest members of the Illinois football team.
2018 Illinois Football Recruits
|Caleb Griffin||K||6'2"||185||Danville, IL||3*||2*|
|Calvin Avery||DT||6'2"||315||Dallas, TX||4*||4*|
|Carlos Sandy||WR||5'9"||160||Fort Lauderdale, FL||3*||3*|
|Coran Taylor||QB||6'3"||205||Peoria, IL||3*||3*|
|Daniel Barker||TE||6'4"||235||Deerfield Beach, FL||3*||3*|
|Delano Ware||DB||6'0"||180||El Cerrito, CA||3*||2*|
|Edwin Carter||WR||6'3"||180||Jacksonville, FL||3*||3*|
|Ezekiel Holmes||DE||6'5"||205||Wichita Falls, TX||3*||3*|
|Jacob Hollins||LB||6'2"||220||Fresno, CA||2*||3*|
|Jakari Norwood||RB||5'10"||165||Deerfield Beach, FL||3*||2*|
|Jartavius Martin||DB||6'0"||175||Lehigh Acres, FL||3*||2*|
|Jordyn Slaughter||OL||6'5"||290||Belleville, IL||3*||3*|
|Julian Pearl||OL||6'7"||245||Danville, IL||3*||2*|
|Kenyon Sims||RB||5'11"||190||San Diego, CA||3*||3*|
|Kerby Joseph||DB||6'2"||187||Orlando, FL||3*||3*|
|Khalan Tolson||LB||6'0"||205||St. Petersburg, FL||3*||3*|
|Kievan Myers||OL||6'5"||330||Dallas, TX||3*||3*|
|M.J. Rivers||QB||6'4"||212||Frisco, TX||3*||3*|
|Matthew Robinson||QB||6'1"||180||San Juan Capistrano, CA||3*||2*|
|Nick Walker||DB||5'10"||185||Cisco , TX||3*||3*|
|Reuben Unije||OL||6'6"||300||Bradenton, FL||3*||4*|
|Ron Hardge||DB||6'1"||178||Fort Lauderdale, FL||3*||2*|
|Sydney Brown||DB||6' 0"||170||Bradenton, FL||3*||2*|
|Verdis Brown||DL/OL||6' 4"||290||Bradenton, FL||4*||4*|
This class of recruits is ranked lower than the 2017 class — Smith’s first full class. Illinois’ recruiting class is ranked 55th nationally by ESPN, 55th by 247 Sports, and 50th by Rivals. That is good for 13th, 12th and 12th respectively in the Big Ten.
In 2017 Illinois was unanimously ranked 10th in the Big Ten and within the top 50 nationally.
While recruiting may have dropped slightly nationally — almost to a negligible extent — the drop in Big Ten recruiting is disappointing and concerning. Illinois’ tough season had to play an impact, but one also has to wonder if the early signing period played a role with fewer recruits remaining unsigned after December than anticipated.
But, in a more pessimistic outlook, perhaps the concerns about Smith and his staff’s recruiting ability after spending most of their careers in the NFL were accurate. The Illinois staff may just not be able to recruit that well compared to fellow rivals.
It should be noted that while this class isn’t ranked as highly, there are some bright spots, and the recruiting trajectory is still moving in a positive direction post-Tim Beckman.
Illinois Football Recruiting Rankings 2010-Present
Now just wait before you leave an angry comment saying that “recruiting rankings don't’ matter!” “Look at Mike Dudek or Bennett Williams!”
It’s true that on an individual level recruiting rankings don’t accurately rank every player. There are countless examples of players who were very low-rated recruits who went on to great things such as 2* recruit J.J. Watt and Heisman winners Johnny Manziel — well at least for a little bit — and Baker Mayfield.
BUT, for every Dudek or Bennett Williams, you will also have recruits who don’t live up to their rankings. For every surprise like Dudek, you will usually find a disappointment like Gabe Megginson or Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Where recruiting ranking matter is in the aggregate. The total average of a class. While final class rankings aren’t everything in college football — games still have to be played on the field — they are by far the greatest predictor of future success.
There’s is a reason that the blue-chip ratio exists. The number one reason Illinois became one of the worst major college football programs after the run to the Rose Bowl was recruiting fell off.
There are however some example of teams that regularly outperform their rankings.
Bill Snyder is some sort of warlock at Kansas State. I’m pretty sure I could have started on an 8-win team for Snyder. Snyder has proven to be a terrific developer of talent, but Lovie Smith has yet to show that same ability.
On the other hand there are teams like Stanford, Wisconsin and Washington State. These are teams with well-defined offensive systems where they can recruit specific players to fit specific roles and be successful without elite top-level talent. Since they know exactly what they are looking for in their system, they can find player to fit those unique niches. Give Mike Leach an army of two and three stars that fit the Air Raid and he will put up wins.
Illinois doesn’t have that with a brand new offensive coordinator coming it. The offensive class of 2016 and 2017 and the majority of the class of 2018 were brought in to play in Garrick McGee’s — well I guess for lack of a better word we have to call it an offense even though what we saw on the field was just sad — offense. Illinois doesn’t yet have the ability to narrow down the type of recruits that can be successful in an offensive system that has yet to be defined.
So yes, recruiting rankings do matter. They can’t tell you everything, but they can tell you a hell of a lot and give you the best idea of where the future of a program most likely lies. And being ranked 12th in the conference doesn’t bode well for the future of the Illini.
Calvin Avery & Verdis Brown
Defensive tackle is one of the toughest positions to recruit in college football, but Illinois may have just settled the position for the coming years by hauling in two four-star DTs.
Calvin Avery is the highest rated recruit in the class out of Dallas. He was a surprise get for Illinois, but Lovie Smith was able to use his connections in Texas to help bring in Avery. At 6’ 2”, 310 pounds, Avery already has the size and strength to compete in the Big Ten on day one. He anticipates the snap well and has a great first step, and doesn’t just depend on his size to beat his blocker having plus technique for his age.
Verdis Brown is from Chicago, but played his High School ball at the IMG Academy in Florida. He was originally a commit to Florida State, but decommitted after Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M. He was a top-ten center recruit in the country, and had offers from Michigan, Michigan State, LSU, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Oklahoma among others, but he chose to come to Illinois. A large part may be that he will be playing on the defensive line to start his Illini career. Brown is very tough and athletic already with good size at 6’3” and just under 300 pounds.
Getting two four-star DTs is huge for any defense, but especially for an Illinois defense that needs talent on the defensive line in order for the more conservative style of defense to be effective.
Illinois is in the process of retooling the offensive line. Last year saw Illinois start three true freshman for most of the season, including the huge Vederian Lowe and Larry Boyd both at 340 pounds.
Illinois has brought in yet another group of big linemen in their attempt to build a tough and big, run-blocking line.
Ruben Unije is a top-40 OT recruit also out of the IMG Academy listed at 6’5”, 303 pounds.
Jordyn Slaughter — what a great name for a lineman — is an in-state recruit from Belleville at 6’5”, 295 pounds, with the frame to put on a lot more weight.
Julian Pearl out of Danville, Illinois, may not have the size yet at only 245 pounds, but he has the length at 6’7”.
The biggest player being brought in is interior lineman Kievan Myers out of Dallas at 6’5” 330 pounds.
Now, as Illini fans all saw last season, offensive line is one of the hardest (if not the hardest) position to play right out of high school. If any of these true freshman play, I expect them to struggle as the young lineman on the team did last season. However, Smith and his staff are going with a clear strategy of loading up on bigger, tougher young lineman, and hoping that enough of them work out to build a good power blocking line.
The two things you can’t teach in football are size and speed, and Illinois is putting size at a premium with these offensive line recruits in its last two classes.
Illinois only has one returning scholarship QB on the roster in 2018 in Cam Thomas, and it will be bringing in three freshman QBs to compete with him to be the guy.
MJ Rivers put up eye boggling stats in Texas. Coran Taylor has all the physical tools. Matt Robinson was the first QB brought in by new OC Rod Smith and despite his smaller size has some playmaking ability.
Illinois now has four young players for QB guru Rod Smith to work with.
The only wide receiver that Illinois is brining in with the 2018 class is Carlos Sandy out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Sandy is small for a wideout at 5’8” and 153 pounds, but what I love about Sandy is his ability to make tough catches in traffic.
Just look at some of these catches.
Now, he isn’t too quick or athletic. I think he may need to transition to the slot or improve his route running to be successful on the outside. With his ability to make spectacular catches, however, he could surprise some people.
Running back Kenyon Sims out of San Diego was the first recruit brought in by Rod Smith despite having several offers from Pac-12 schools. What I like about Sims is his fit for the system.
In high school he mostly ran the ball out of shotgun formations — which Rod Smith will use almost exclusively with Illinois — and also showcased an ability to make plays out of the backfield in the passing game.
If Mike Epstein comes back healthy, he is the sure number one running back, but there is room for Sims to compete with Dre Brown, Reggie Corbin and Ra’Von Bonner for carries behind Epstein.
Once again I really love the signing of two blue-chip DTs in Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery. They can be a huge help on day one for building the kind of defense Illinois needs.
However, beyond that this class isn’t too exciting. There are also some holes that weren’t addressed as fully as they should have. Linebacker is a big question mark going forward, and only signing three-star Khalan Tolson and two-star Jacob Hollins isn’t quite what Illinois wanted.
Illinois also needs wide receivers on offense. Mike Dudek is entering his final season with Illinois and, while Ricky Smalling is promising as a rising sophomore, there is a lack of talent at the position. Bringing in only one WR in Carlos Sandy is questionable, but the staff may really believe in rising sophomore Carmoni Green’s potential.
Overall being ranked in the mid-50s nationally and 12th in the conference quite frankly isn’t good enough. I’m going to have to give this class a C, and if it weren’t for Avery and Brown, it would certainly be lower.
Illinois needs to find a way to pull blood from a stone — a la Bill Snyder — and/or recruit better in 2019 if they want this current rebuild to be successful, or fans will be in the midst of another new rebuild before they know it.