Much like the brand new practice facility being built next to Memorial Stadium, the building blocks of this rebuild are crucial. The facilities structure will keep it viable, and the thriving center of Illini football apprenticeship for the foreseeable future. For Lovie Smith’s rebuild project, that foundation was the 2017 and 2018 classes.
Long on offensive and defensive line stalwarts, and surrounded by solid Big Ten recruits along the edges and in the back seven. Smith even solved his quarterback room problem in one class with three additions in 2018! But, although the future of the lines looks stable, those are the meeting rooms of the practice facility. You can’t win games without them, but you won’t jump all those programs ahead of you without more. The 2019 class needs to have some dudes, some difference makers, some potential draft picks at gamebreaking positions.
And you don’t have to look too far, geographically or strategically to figure out who those glitzy faces of the program could be. Corey Patterson was hired as an offensive assistant coach so that he could strengthen the St. Louis pipeline, and give Illinois the edge for a trio of difference making prospects from Trinity Catholic. Throw in the early inroads the Illini have made for an in-state terror off the edge and talented running back and you can see the 2019 class being the one to use the foundational classes as the launching point for what Whitman had in mind when he first said #WeWillWin
At St. Louis’ Trinity Catholic, a hotbed for college coaches and outrageous football talent, is quarterback Isaiah Williams, linebacker Shammond Cooper, and wide-receiver Marcus Washington.
The Holy Trinity
As primetime TV has taught you, Williams is the key. Isaiah Williams, generally thought of as the highest-rated of the bunch, is Missouri’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a Top-50 player nationally. If you haven’t seen his video-game moves on youtube, or seen his jaw-dropped quicks played over Twitter, then leave this article immediately and go check them out. The kid is one of the most exciting players I’ve seen on film, and that resonates with his teammates, and potential landing spot. Remember how Illinois looked trying to chase down South Florida’s Quentin Flowers? Yeah, well imagine Flowers with a nitrous boost.
Shammond Cooper’s importance to Illinois was just amplified by the swing-and-miss on linebacker Merlin Robertson, which followed the swing-and-miss on Ayodele Adeoye, and Hardy Nickerson’s defense can’t suffer strike three in 2019. It’s strange that after two seasons it’s middle linebacker that stands out, since that’s where both Lovie and Nickerson can boast loudest. But alas, Cooper’s picking Illinois over programs like Clemson and Ohio State would/could make up for passed class transgressions.
And Marcus Washington, oh boy, Marcus Washington. Illinois hasn’t had a physically eye-popping receiver like Washington since Regis Benn. Washington isn’t built like a WWE wrestler like Benn was, but he has insane burst and breakaway speed. While Illinois has picked up some quick slot guys, and has some nice rangier prospects in Edwin Carter and Carmoni Green, Washington would be a welcome weapon in Rod Smith’s offense.
Our State, Our Team
The class of 2017 included some nice defensive end prospects in Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Owen Carney, and Lere Oladipo; but with Lovie’s need for pass rush animals, they can never stop adding elite athletes at the position. Queue Jason Bargy, they’re playing his music. Bargy, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound manchild from Momence, Illinois, is at the top of the in-state wishlist, and could start something special that didn’t matriculate in 2018. After making huge strides in state in Year One, Lovie didn’t land enough of a decently talented bunch in 2018. Bargy is the man to get it started, and after recent Twitter buzz and a visit for a recent basketball game, it could be time for the full-court press to set the tone.
Jirehl Brock is the physical exclamation point running back from Quincy that could be a huge win for the staff and Thad Ward. Brock is another popular Twitter highlight runner, with an especially brutal hit along the sideline standing out in his junior campaign. With Mike Epstein back healthy, back isn’t the top concern for the staff, but making noise in state with these two prospects could go a long way to closing on a few other kids with early offers and potential.