When things are going well, maybe even too well — it’s hard to not be suspicious of just how and why those changes are happening in the first place. Just ask the writers over at Rivals.com. Two Rivals writers in particular can hardly believe the success Lovie Smith and company are having in the early part of the 2019 recruiting cycle.
Two top-100 recruits, Isaiah Williams (QB/ATH) of Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis, and Marquez Beason (WR/DB) of Bishop Dunne High School in Dallas are reasons why Illinois is back on the map, and why national writers are scratching their heads in utter disbelief. Isaiah Williams has offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma among dozens of others. Beason has offers from many of those same schools in addition to in-state, nearby schools in Texas and Texas A&M.
Frankly, this started happening last season. Calvin Avery was an offensive tackle/defensive lineman from Marquez Beason’s high school in Dallas, and Avery chose Illinois over Texas and Texas A&M — though to be fair, at the time Texas A&M was undergoing a coaching change, and that instability often turns away high school recruits. Still, Avery had a plethora of SEC, ACC and Big 12 offers to choose from.
Verdis Brown is another one of those guys, a top-ranked recruit who played his high school football in Florida (though originally he hails from Chicago), who turned down offers from Florida and Florida State to play for the Illini. Brown’s teammate at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Reuben Unije had offers from Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma and TCU and still chose the Illini.
What gives? What is attractive about playing for Illinois when seemingly so many other programs, winning programs, have just as much if not more to offer? Here’s a list:
Playing Time in a major conference
It’s clear from watching Illinois play the last several seasons, this team is devoid of difference makers. The overall level of talent dropped when the coaching situation went from Ron Zook to Tim Beckman to Bill Cubit. High school players know this. Even though programs like Florida, Florida State, Texas and Texas A&M have gone through coaching changes too, the talent level was more or less consistent.
At Illinois, the message is clear: In Champaign, the opportunity to play and play early and often right away is something the top programs can’t necessarily guarantee.
While losing games isn’t attractive, this is very attractive to a high schooler that doesn’t want to spend time on the bench:
Illinois leads the nation with 14 true freshmen starters, 20 true freshmen played (tied with LSU) and 24 first-time starters.— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) October 16, 2017
As bad as Illinois’ record has been, it still plays in one of the top conferences and is on TV every single weekend. Few, if any Power Five programs can offer the playing time Illinois can offer. The above statistics prove it’s more than just coach speak or a hollow recruiting pitch — it’s reality.
New Facilities on the horizon
It’s not so much that high school players on visits are comparing and nitpicking which college football facility has the nicest weight room or best players’ lounge — they just want to see the commitment from the administration into those things. They want to know that football is a priority.
The University of Illinois is making this a priority thanks to AD Josh Whitman and head coach Lovie Smith’s insistence on making Illinois athletics an attractive place for student athletes to want to go to school. All of the details with regards to the facility can be found here, and the entire project will be completed for the start of the 2019 season — just in time for Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and the entire 2019 class to arrive on campus.
Recruits will watch this video and get excited:
There is something to be said for the whole “we don’t come here to play school” quote former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones was quoted as saying. Many players at big-time colleges feel that way, and to a large extent, are justified in thinking along those lines.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an academic powerhouse, and i’m sure that’s a big part of the recruiting pitch to these players. Where exactly is Illinois better than Alabama, Florida State, Texas, Texas A&M and others? In the classroom. A degree from Illinois is a major selling point, just as it is at Michigan and Cal-Berkley and others. Flaunt it.
Most of these players have dreams of going pro. Most of these players understand the scarce reality of those dreams coming true, even if things go extremely well during the three or four years on campus.
Lovie Smith/Hardy Nickerson
Ok. The fact of the matter is when head coach Lovie Smith was with the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams (as a defensive assistant coach) some of the kids he’s recruiting now were in diapers. When Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson was churning out Pro Bowl seasons as a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, these current high school students weren’t even thought of.
As Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption Program said when discussing the Lovie Smith hire with Mike Wilbon back in March of 2016, “I imagine Lovie Smith has built a lot of good will with people in Chicagoland and elsewhere.” He’s dead on. The high school players themselves may not have seen Lovie Smith on TV as a coach or remember him as an NFL guy, but their parents and high school coaches certainly do. That’s not to negate what other Big Ten coaches have done, but Lovie Smith brings a professional experience few if any other Division I coaches have. That matters.
Dare To Be Different
Kids want to be standouts. They want to be cool. They want to be different. For some, particularly in the midwest, earning that scholarship offer from Notre Dame or Michigan or Ohio State is the culmination of years of hard work and big dreams wrapped up in a bow.
Rudy is a fantastic sports movie, of an underdog who achieves stardom. But the fact is, is that Notre Dame was a powerhouse program decades before Rudy, and going back generations, Notre Dame has arguably been THE college football program. National titles. Heisman Trophies. Legendary coaches.
Illinois has just two retired uniforms numbers: Red Grange (No. 77) and Dick Butkus (No. 50). Those are two of the best college football players to ever play the game at any position, and both were pioneers in the way the NFL was formed (Grange) and transformed (Butkus) over the years.
Illinois is a blank canvas. It’s a place where it isn’t impossible to make and create a legacy. If you go to Ohio State or Alabama, you could just end up another player. Look at what Juice Williams did when he bucked the trend and went to Illinois. At Illinois, a fanbase yearning for a new icon to uplift a generation, the opportunity and market is wide wide open and there for the taking.
#Littyville and #ILLGang19 are taking notice.