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It’s finals week for Bret Bielema, too

How will the head man do on the final exam of signing day?

Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The early signing period kicks off on Dec. 21. This week, the Illini have earned commitments from Ohio wide receiver Collin Dixon, Colorado State tight end Tanner Arkin, and ECU graduate transfer offensive lineman Avery Jones.

According to 247Sports, the Illini have 20 verbal commitments from prep prospects, with nine of the 20 being in the top 1,000 nationally. This class has a high floor, and adds depth in the trenches and on the perimeter.

But there is an unusual amount of high drama for the Illini heading into signing day. From potential decommitments to uncommitted stars and randomness that fills the gaps in between, things will be intense for Coach Bret Bielema’s program.

And as fans, we will be one giant glass case of emotions.

So Coach Bielema, this is where you come in.

One of the coolest traditions in sports was when New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera would come out from the bullpen in the big ball yard in the South Bronx to the intense chords of Metallica’s Enter Sandman. Everyone knew the hammer of Thor was about to stand 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate and his intimidating presence was even more menacing because of the ominous, foreboding tones of his entrance song.

Coach Bielema, it’s your turn to be the great closer. It’s your time to be the hammer.

It’s time for you to ace your final exams.

You’ve done great work all semester.

But you just lost your best study partner, Ryan Walters, to that school that wears black and gold. No, not that one..the other one.

And one of your premium in-state talents, Roderick “Trey” Pierce from Brother Rice, just committed to Michigan.

One of your top JUCO offensive line targets, Keyshawn Blackstock, just announced his final 5 schools with nary a mention of the Illini.

It’s on you to not let the wheels fall off in the final week. And you know what? Like most Illini fans, I believe you’ll do just that.

Ryan Walters’ departure means you have to do a different sort of lift. You’ve done an amazing job of selling a vision for what the program could be on the field. Coach Walters’ defense is a major part of that vision being so real so early.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 Michigan State at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One major step you can take to keep your grades high for this term would be to name Ryan Walters’ replacement as soon as possible. Will you promote from within by elevating Kevin Kane or Aaron Henry? Either one could bring a level of intensity and familiarity to the recruiting trail with a greater title.

UTEP v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Or are you going to look outside the program for a ready-made star? Is Jim Leonhard a real possibility, or just message board fodder? Is Jay Valai a superstar pipe dream of a recruiter or a genuine option? Either way, once you decide who is going to steer the elite Illini defense into the future, you’ll be providing clarity to any recruits who may be on the fence.

Speaking of which, your grades may get a slight bump because while Teremun Lott publicly flirts with Greg Schiano and Rutgers, you locked in Collin Dixon.

So what’s your answer for losing out on Pierce? Are you going to turn up the heat on long-time target Jamel Howard from Marist? Is it too late? His recruitment is rumored to be an alleged Michigan lean. Do you want to hear that song twice in one recruiting cycle? Do you want yet another big, athletic, talented interior wrecking ball from the Chicago Catholic League to go play for Harbaugh? Of course not. So earn that grade.

Possibly the biggest target left on the board is Kankakee defensive back Jyaire Hill. But you certainly know that. And you also know that Coach Walters was the primary recruiter on Hill for the Illini. This would be an amazing coup to close this recruitment down with Hill in Orange and Blue. He has the look of a plug-and-play true freshman. Illinois hasn’t historically won those recruitments, but you are at the doorstep.

And so is the khaki-wearing gesticulator from eastern Michigan.

For years, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern, Notre Dame, and Michigan have come into the state of Illinois and eaten the Illini’s lunch. That is happening far less now that you’re here. But this is the guy you’ve done everything to keep in-state. It’s only 75 miles down I-57 to Champaign for Jyaire HIll.

Make sure he knows he’ll have more fun with his friends and family cheering for him at every home game than he will with a bunch of strangers from Connecticut in the Big House.

Don’t let Michigan be Illinois’ daddy on the recruiting trail.

You know your assignments, coach. And you’re doing a hell of a job so far. We’re all thankful.

I see that you’ve been on the road, making sure the current recruits know how much they mean. That’s the kind of focus and persistence we’ve been craving. So if you keep doing your part, we’ll do ours.

Illini fans, don’t be that fanbase. You know, the one that other fanbases think we are.

  • Don’t harass players who pick another school. These are young men figuring out their lives, so don’t take your frustrations out on them.
  • Don’t get into arguments with goofballs and meatheads. You can’t beat someone willing to go glue-sniffing stupid on the internet. Anonymity makes warriors out of cowards, so do not feed trolls.
  • Finally, know your potential future Illini.

Happy finals week.

P.S. For all of you U of I freshmen currently enduring your first finals week, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve crashed from sugar and caffeine in undergrad. I’ve fallen asleep face down in a textbook in the basement of the Illini Union. I’ve even gone three days without sleep and shown up so punch drunk that my essays made no sense. So you’re already likely much better than I was.

Just remember that in a few days, you’re going to sleep in your bed at home for about 30 hours straight, and that’s okay. Congratulations on completing 12.5% of your journey towards being Illini Grads!