It’s only been about 18 months since Bret Bielema replaced Lovie Smith as Illinois’ head football coach. I must admit I was initially not a fan of the hire. But I was optimistic after a promising debut season. And after the offseason Illinois has had so far, I have no doubts that Bielema is the right guy to stabilize the program.
The Fighting Illini have a lot of juice on the recruiting trail right now. The 2022 class is Illinois’ best cumulative ranking in more than a decade, and Bielema has received four 2023 commitments since Sunday — in-state DE Pat Farrell, Kentucky D-lineman Jamarrion Harkless, Florida offensive tackle Rico Jackson and Oklahoma QB Cal Swanson.
The Illini have 8 commitments thus far for 2023 (Farrell, Harkless, Jackson, Swanson, Zachary Aamland, Kaden Feagin, Antwon Hayden and TJ McMillen) and the 33rd-ranked class nationally according to 247Sports — ahead of Iowa State, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Florida, Miami, UCLA, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Missouri, Indiana & Purdue. In fact, Illinois is currently just behind Michigan (30), Texas A&M (31) and Alabama (32).
Yes...it’s REALLY early. But to even be flirting with a top-30 recruiting ranking was unfathomable at this time two years ago. And these rankings — along with the level of talent Illinois pursue and sign — will only improve as wins pile up. Fighting Illini fans need to look no further than Brad Underwood as an exemplar; hire good assistants/recruiters, develop talent, create your program’s identity, stack wins, get noticed.
The Illini are finally recruiting like a Power Five football program, not a mid-level MAC school. In the words of Lizzo, it’s about damn time.
Does this mean Illinois will emerge as a heavyweight in the Big Ten? Not necessarily. Will they be contending for a spot in the CFP? Unlikely. But scouting, development, and competency will help make the Fighting Illini a competitive, viable squad for years to come.