The University of Illinois Fighting Illini enter the final week of the regular season with bowl eligibility and the promise of a winning record. The winding down of the regular season symbolizes the closing of one door and the focus on another.
The early signing period starts Dec. 21.
And the Illini have to not only hold their solid class of 2023, but they have to finish strong in closing uncommitted targets and even more potential flips.
To be clear, recruiting has been on the upswing since Bielema and his staff have hit the trail. Their sell to in-state players has been resonating.
But who do you want to be?
Do you want to be the program that is a perennial 0-fer in your crossover games but has some solid wins against similarly constructed teams? Or do you want to establish yourself as a power player in the world of college football?
Do you want to celebrate bowl eligibility? Or do you want to celebrate playing in New Year’s Six games?
Most importantly, what do you plan on doing when those two schools in Los Angeles join the conference?
After the Illinois vs. Michigan game, I stayed away from social media for the most part. But I did watch the USC vs. UCLA game. It was a thriller. It was also a stark reminder that two of the most brilliant offensive minds of the past 20 years in college football are coming to the Big Ten in 2024. If you want to compete with Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley, then recruitment has to rise to the level of talent those two gurus can attract.
So where does the Illini recruiting effort stack up now? Let’s take a look.
Commitments (2) - David Olano (K), Declan Duley (P)
Remaining Needs: None
The Illini Special Teams have been up and down this season. Scoring from distance and winning the field position battles that can decide Big Ten games have been inconsistent at best. So in a rare move, the Illini offered scholarships to a pair of in-state specialists to help solve this problem. Naperville’s David Olano is a top-5 kicker with a soccer background. Declan Duley is a lefty dual-sport athlete (track) from El Paso, Illinois, who is also a top-five player nationally at his position. This infusion of high end talent should help play ball control Bielema ball.
Commitments (1) - Cal Swanson
Remaining Needs: Impact Transfer, Veteran Transfer
Cal Swanson is the first quarterback to commit to Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. Since his commitment, rumor has it that Notre Dame started sniffing around. That is a testament to the quality of the evaluation. The Ardmore (OK) signal caller has the athleticism and speed to make plays with his legs. During the recruitment process, he mentioned that the Lunney offense resembles the offense he runs in high school. He may be a long-term solution at the position.
In the near term, however, Illinois likely needs someone to start next season. Art Sitkowski walked during Senior Day, so he may not be back next season. Swanson, Kirkland Michaux and current true freshman Donovan Leary are still developing and may get more reps this spring. But the portal will be a major factor for next season’s quarterback room.
Of course, according to 247Sports, the Illini will attempt to get Tommy DeVito an extra year of eligibility. Another healthy year of Tommy D. would be an ideal bridge to the Leary/Michaux/Swanson era. It’s not necessarily a likely outcome, but you have to look under every rock.
Commitments (1) - Kaden Feagin
Remaining Needs: Experienced Transfer
Kaden Feagin was the first member of the class of 2023 to commit. He was the hammer, the headliner, the guy Coach Bielema wanted to set the table. Feagin is a dominant athlete who could eventually move to outside linebacker. But at this time, he will be joining a running back room losing Chase Brown.
The health of power back Josh McCray has been a major issue for the Illini. Reggie Love and Chase Hayden have shown flashes in spurts. True freshman Aidan Laughery has struggled with injuries this season. With Josh Anderson’s future positional fit being currently unclear, the Illini could use another veteran back to strengthen the committee.
One doesn’t simply replace Chase Brown. But with the potential depth being mostly unproven and the murky nature of the competition emerging in the backfield, the Illini could use a competent, experienced runner to complete the position group.
Commitments (1) - Teremun Lott
Needs: None (But there are some strong wants.)
So let’s get the two-headed elephant in the room out of the way right now.
Teremun Lott, the lone commitment in George McDonald’s position group, recently announced that his recruitment is open.
Ended my high school career on a great note and looking forward to national signing day.— Teremun (Speed)Lott (@TeremunL) November 23, 2022
MY RECRUITMENT IS 100% OPEN! @InletGroveFB
This was not a decommitment, but it does look like he may be willing to flirt a little. And while having his speed would be a great addition, I do understand why he’s open to overtures from other programs. This brings us to the other elephant in the room.
Illinois is currently actively, aggressively recruiting two Midwest recent decommitments. Chicago Public League superstar Malik Elzy from Simeon and Ohio’s Collin Dixon have both taken recent visits to Champaign. Elzy decommitted from Luke Fickell’s Bearcats, while Dixon is part of a wave of decommitments from Wisconsin.
Illinois appears to be in good shape with both targets. With four productive players returning next year (Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, Brian Hightower, and Casey Washington), the WR room may be the deepest returning group on the roster. With a healthy Shawn Miller, a stronger Eian Pugh, and a more experienced Hank Beatty, the Illinois passing attack doesn’t appear shy of weapons.
Landing either or both of Dixon and Elzy would be massive additions to an already strong position group. Elzy will be announcing his college decision in January at the All-American Bowl.
Commitments (1) - Nathan Guinn
The tight end group has been inconsistent at best this season in terms of receiving. While Luke Ford in particular has showcased amazing blocking skill, the Illini tight ends have not been consistently effective in the passing game. This could change significantly next season, as Naivyan Cargill and Owen Anderson can make their way into the rotation. Jordan Anderson also has some potential utility as an H-back. Henry Boyer projects as an excellent blocker as well, so the group could be young but talented next season.
Nathan Guinn is new to the tight end position. So he may take time to develop like ex-quarterback Griffin Moore. But the staff seems to love Guinn’s work ethic and athletic ability, so he could be a long-term prospect to be excited about like Matthew Bailey.
The big question is whether or not Tip Reiman is ready to anchor the tight end room. He’s shown two-way ability as a blocker and as a pass catcher. He’s going to have to compete with several hungry young lions, but his experience in the system could set him up well for a major role next season.
Commitments (4) Brandon Henderson, Dez’Mond Schuster (Junior College), TJ McMillen, Zachary Aamland
This is going to be the program’s calling card moving forward. The Illini successfully replaced two NFL draft picks and a productive grad transfer, and they have anchored an Illini team that is one win away from an 8-4 season. Isaiah Adams and Zy Crisler have stepped in and started immediately. And with Alex Pihlstrom and the venerable Alex Palcewski running out of eligibility, the Illini have to replace at least two starters.
Thankfully, this staff has gone out of their way to load up on depth in the offensive line group. Joey Okla, Zachary Barlev, and Josh Kreutz all look poised to fight for starting jobs next season. If Adams and Julian Pearl decide to leave for the NFL, the Illini could be well-equipped to continue success.
But the staff is not done. They are shooting their shot with some high end junior college players, including University of Mississippi commit Izavion Miller and uncommitted four-star guard Keyshawn Blackstock. The future is bright for Bart Miller and his position group, and Coach Bielema’s sell to offensive linemen is pretty unassailable.
Commitments (4) Calvin Smith, Pat Farrell, Mason Muragin, Alex Bray
Needs: A destructive interior presence
The Illinois defensive front has been tremendous this season. Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph have been excellent as expected. Calvin Avery has been a disruptive force and Terah Edwards has provided solid interior depth. There is a real chance that Newton will leave to test the NFL waters.
Kevin Kane and Terrance Jamison have done a good job reloading the talent base of this group. The return of Gabe Jacas is a tantalizing possibility that should decorate all kinds of preseason watch lists.
The decommitment of Jamarrion Harkless leaves a giant hole in the middle of this recruiting class. The Illini are continuing to pursue current Wisconsin commit Trey Pierce and former Wisconsin commit Jamel Howard, though with Michigan lurking those recruitments are no guarantees.
While Duke commitment Terry Simmons and Kent State pledge Maverick Gracio both seem to be on the Illini radar, this is a position where the portal may be the Illini’s best friend. The kind of impact defensive tackle Illinois needs may not be ready to wreck shop at age 18. So I would look for the staff to be aggressive with both power 5 transfers and smaller school talents. It worked out well with SCSU transfer Rod Perry.
Commitments (1) Antwon Hayden
Coach Andy Buh has been a revelation on the recruiting trail. Not only has he opened up a pipeline to New Jersey, but he’s replenished the linebacker room with lots of future talent. With CJ Hart and Tarique Barnes likely to return, the group has two solid starters.
The emergence of Isaac Darkangelo and Kennena Odeluga have helped solidify the depth the roster needs this season. In a conference where stopping the run is key, developing sure tacklers is paramount to future success. With Darkangelo potentially moving on after this season, James Kreutz seems poised to step into next year’s rotation.
This position seems pretty well taken care of and excellently coached.
Commitments (4) Jaheim Clarke, Saboor Karriem, Kenari Wilcher, Zachary Tobe
Needs: Impact Starters
Aaron Henry and Ryan Walters have done a great job building this group. It’s been said that they don’t recruit corners or safeties, they recruit defensive backs and position them in ways that make sense.
This group is going to be decimated by NFL departures. Kendall Smith, Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, and Devon Witherspoon are all likely to leave at season’s end. But all of them have played their way into at least an opportunity to make a roster as a special teams standout, with Witherspoon looking like a potential day 2 draft pick.
Matthew Bailey and Taz Nicholson appear to be poised to take even larger roles next season, with Nicholson playing the shutdown corner role and Bailey moving to strong safety. But this secondary group needs a combination of development from current players and immediately help from the transfer portal.
And Jyaire Hill. The squad is still pursuing the Kankakee defensive back, and looks to be locked in a duel with Michigan for his services. That’s a tough battle, so Illinois will have to play it smart and come up with solid contingency plans.
Those plans likely involve an aggressive journey into the transfer portal. This unit has been wrecked by injuries, so experienced depth is an important pursuit for this coaching staff. Whether or not Ryan Walters leaves for a head coaching job, this secondary will have a lot to replace.