What kind of day was Wednesday?
It was a highly successful, productive day. Head Coach Bret Bielema and his staff have signed an excellent class. They filled some needs. They plugged some holes. They landed some developmental prospects with upside. They didn’t have any last-second unexpected flips.
The Illinois class of 2023 includes 19 prep prospects and two junior college athletes. The class wound up being larger than originally expected.
They even got a few players who could be immediate rotation factors like Gabe Jacas, Matthew Bailey, and others were during the 2022 season.
But Jyaire Hill chose Michigan.
That’s not surprising. So don’t dwell on it. Hill was a top Illini target for a long time. He is a day one impact level guy from barely an hour from campus. And the Illini failed to close. Some believe that ship sailed a long time ago. Others have speculated that the departure of Ryan Walters sealed the Illini’s fate in Hill’s recruitment. Either way, the top target left on the board went with Jim Harbaugh and his khakis.
This class has foundational blueprint vibes, but will that be enough?
This class has balance. Offense, defense and special teams all got long-term pieces that can help keep the Illini competitive in an evolving conference. According to 247, this class currently stands at 49th in the nation and 10th in the conference. The coaching staff was able to sign the kinds of players who make perfect sense for the current roster.
But with several elite offensive minds who will bring a different level of talent joining the conference in the next two years, is this class good enough to keep pace? Only time will answer that question, but the long-term Big Ten challenges Illinois will face aren’t diminishing or disappearing. They’re multiplying.
Is the class complete?
The transfer portal will supplement the prep and JUCO additions, so there will be more departures and arrivals in advance of spring ball and throughout the offseason.
There is also the curious case of Chicago Simeon wide receiver Malik Elzy. He announced that he would sign on national signing day, but wouldn’t announce until the All-American Game. His presence would elevate both the floor and the ceiling of this class.
Enough of your babbling, Honeywood. Who is coming to Champaign?
Let’s talk about the signees themselves.
Commit: Cal Swanson, Ardmore, OK
Positional Outlook: The Illini got a high upside quarterback early in the process. Swanson was Barry Lunney Jr.’s first prep quarterback commitment, so it was clear that the Illini saw a system fit. He has legitimate track speed and a big arm, so the traits for a Big Ten starter are there. It’s not wise to expect him to compete for the starting job in 2023, but the fact that he is going to be an early enrollee gives him an early shot at learning the offense.
But make no mistake about it, the speed and athleticism create a tantalizing combination of reasons for irrational levels of confidence.
Commit: Kaden Feagin, Arthur, IL
Positional Outlook: Feagin was the first to publicly commit to Illinois in the class of 2023. He remains the highest ranked commit in the class, and he joins a deep, talented running back room in Champaign. His power and athleticism could lend themselves to him being eventually moved to defense, but as of now he is a classic power back who dominated smaller school competition.
As a central Illinois product, his presence matters both physically and symbolically. He is enrolling early, and his talent could see him on the field early for an Illini team that will continue pounding the rock.
Commits: Kenari Wilcher, Moore Haven, FL; Collin Dixon, Tallmadge, OH;
Positional Outlook: This room is one of the deeper, more talented rooms on the roster. The possible addition of Malik Elzy elevates the ceiling of this room even more. But the announced signees are both top-800 prospects according to 247Sports.
Dixon is a well-rounded, physical receiver who resembles 2022 signee Shawn Miller on film.
Wilcher was originally recruited as a defensive back. He has blow the top off the defense speed, and could add a layer to the team that the roster doesn’t currently have.
This position is one of the Illini’s strengths heading into 2023, and both known signees have the opportunity to crack a rotation that is returning major contributors, including Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, Brian Hightower and Casey Washington.
Commit: Nathan Guinn, Vero Beach, FL
Positional Outlook: Guinn joins a tight end room that is quite young with the departures of Luke Ford and Michael Marchese. Guinn has length and athleticism but still went underrecruited. He has a Matthew Bailey quality of an under the radar prospect who could make an impact sooner than expected. He is new to the tight end position, but his ability to get separation from defenders and make plays in the open field will be welcome in a position group that will have three redshirt freshmen competing for snaps with Tip Reiman and veteran Griffin Moore.
While Guinn could certainly use a redshirt season to gain strength, the fact that he is enrolling early may be the only head start he needs.
Commits: Brandon Henderson, East St. Louis, IL; Dez’mond Schuster, Gonzales, LA; TJ McMillen, Wheaton, IL; Zachary Aamland, Princeton, NJ
Positional Outlook: The offensive line is losing a lot of talent for the second year in a row. If Julian Pearl departs, the depth will be largely unproven. Fortunately, the coaching staff has done a tremendous job of continuing to reload the position and add instant impact players when needed. Last year’s additions of Zy Crisler and Isaiah Adams helped stabilize a group that lost two players who were actual NFL Draft picks.
This year’s haul includes ECU transfer Avery Jones, who looks to step in for the departing Alex Pihlstrom at center. JuCo transfer Dez’Mond Schuster is rated as the second best interior offensive lineman in the JuCo ranks. He also could find himself starting on day one.
Both Henderson and Aamland give the Illini significant depth at tackle, which could be necessary sooner rather than later. Henderson, an Iowa State flip, looks like a surefire future starter. McMillen was one of the first commits in the class, and will be enrolling early along with Henderson.
Commits: Alex Bray, Chesterfield, MO; Mason Muragin, Warren, MI; Jeremiah Warren, Belleville, MI
Positional Outlook: This is a position that holds the most intrigue. Recent rumblings have given indications that the Law Firm may return for another season. That would be a gigantic coup for Aaron Henry as he takes over the Illini defense. If not, the Illini need to upgrade depth along the defensive front with urgency. And the likely replacements would come from the transfer portal, not the high school ranks.
This is a position where a lot of time has been dedicated to whom the Illini were unable to land. I’d rather discuss who did sign with the Illini. Muragin and Warren are both highly productive defensive line programs from excellent programs in the state of Michigan. Alex Bray committed before he even took an official visit.
Bray and Muragin both give the Illini positional versatility as both could be used as situational pass rushers as they put on the size needed to play on the interior.
Commits: Calvin Smith, Ocoee, FL; Pat Farrell, Chicago, IL
Positional Outlook: The departure of Kevin Kane leaves a lot of questions about this position group. If Seth Coleman and Gabe Jacas both come back, the position will be as strong as their health allows. Farrell seemed like an Illinois lean all along, so it comes with no surprise that the St. Rita star inked his NLI on Wednesday. Smith may be the most underrated prospect in the class. He was a disruptive force in Florida as a prep player, and his signature could wind up being one of the biggest positives in this class.
I’m also intrigued by who Bret Bielema eventually hires to coach outside linebackers. He mentioned looking to the NFL for his OLB coach, so let’s see how that position group winds up directionally in 2023.
Commit: Antwon Hayden, East St. Louis, IL
Positional Outlook: Antwon Hayden has the swagger, size, and productivity to be a major factor in Champaign. Coming from perennial powerhouse East St. Louis, Hayden joins a room that should see contributors CJ Hart, Tarique Barnes and Kenenna Odeluga return.
Enrolling early will give Hayden more time with Tank Wright and Andy Buh. He’s another player who could see the field early and make a real impact.
He was the pied piper of this recruiting class, so his leadership and fearlessness could easily rub off on his future teammates.
Commits: Saboor Karriem, West Orange, NJ; Kaleb Patterson, Terry, MS; Zachary Tobe, Ocoee, FL; Jaheim Clarke, Fort Myers, FL
Positional Outlook: The secondary has become the signature unit of the Illinois defense. The group will see three likely draft picks from this year with Kendall Smith also having an opportunity to either be a day 3 selection or an UDFA who makes a roster. The unit will look very different next year, but that doesn’t mean the productivity will fall off significantly.
Matthew Bailey, Xavier Scott, Tyson Rooks, and Taz Nicholson should be back to form the core of a group that is young, fast, and feisty.
Saboor Karriem isn’t ranked as highly as Jyaire Hill, but he has the skill and versatility to make an impact as a true freshman.
Kaleb Patterson is a likely starter with his strong JuCo pedigree, length, strength, and athleticism.
Louisville transfer Nicario Harper could also join Patterson in the Illinois starting lineup.
With Aaron Henry taking over as defensive coordinator, it will be intriguing to find out the new secondary/safeties coach. Perhaps this will be a high end recruiter with deep connections.
Commits: Declan Duley, El Paso, IL; David Olano, Naperville, IL
Positional Outlook: The fact that the Illini offered scholarships to a kicker and a punter early in the cycle underscores the positional need. While both Hugh Robertson and Caleb Griffin steadied themselves as the season went on, the Illini clearly understand that conference play is a long game of inches, and the ability to make longer field goals and pin opponents deep on a regular basis can make the difference between a win and a loss.
Both Duley and Olano come to the Illini as highly ranked national specialists who played their prep ball in the state of Illinois. Both are enrolling early, and could compete for playing time early on.
Illinois filled some long term needs with good prospects. They also landed 9 (possibly 10) top-1,000 prospects. The secondary and offensive line could be business as usual in terms of replacing NFL players with future NFL players.
Obviously, like any recruiting class, it could take three years to figure out how good this class truly is. But whatever this class winds up accomplishing, the program is in the best place it’s been in quite some time.
With the new coaches and programs coming to the conference, Illinois will have to have a higher hit rate on its top targets moving forward. The “we’re a developmental program” schtick only works at the highest level if the great scouting is paired with a ruthless commitment to landing elite talent.