During this early season bye week, the Fighting Illini coaching staff is on the recruiting trail. They have spread out through the state of Illinois for this weekend’s high school games. Earlier in the week, the staff went across the country from Utah to Pennsylvania to Kansas. To their credit, they appear to be leaving no stone unturned.
But this staff, dogged as they may be, has a lot to prove. While nobody has a 100% hit rate, the Illini have been taking far too many Ls during this recruiting cycle. For a program looking to move up in a division that is about to get brutal with westward expansion, this should be a golden opportunity to rack up some recruiting wins on the trail.
So what can the Illini do?
They have to close.
They have to close uncommitted recruits and committed recruits alike.
They have to draw dark, distinct lines around specific geographic regions and high school conferences and tell every university with a track record and a sense of entitlement to knuckle up, because there’s a new fighter in the ring.
But to do that, several members of the all-star staff Josh Whitman and Bret Bielema have assembled must step up on the trail.
Coach Jamo has done a good job with the defensive line. Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton look like surefire NFL prospects. Calvin Avery and TeRah Edwards are holding down the nose tackle spot with decent success.
But prized defensive line recruit Jamarrion Harkless decommitted. Marist DL Jamel Howard and Brother Rice DL Roderick Pierce committed to Jim Leonhard’s defensive juggernaut up in Madison. The Chicago Catholic League sends so many students to the University of Illinois. And this staff has lured Kennena Odeluga from Mount Carmel, Pat Farrell from St. Rita (committed, not yet signed), Josh and James Kreutz from Loyola Academy, Eian Pugh from Fenwick, Jordan Anderson and Malachi Hood from Joliet Catholic, and Henry Boyer from Brother Rice (via Walter Payton College Prep) to Champaign.
But Howard and Pierce are rock solid prospects from Jamison’s position group and geographic territory. This weekend should be a great chance for Coach Jamo to remind those kids why they need to get on the train early or get run over by it if they stay committed to Wisconsin. And flipping one or both of Pierce and Howard would be a great appetizer to the next main course: top ranked Chicago player of the 2024 class DL Justin Scott from Chicago St. Ignatius College Prep.
Bring ‘em home.
Asking Ryan Walters to do more on the recruiting trail is like asking the guy who cooks the whole meal to also buy the groceries and grow the crops that eventually become the groceries.
Walters checked out the top uncommitted prospect on the Illini board: Kankakee S Jyaire Hill. Hill should remember that Kerby Joseph played his way into becoming an NFL safety after less than 10 weeks of regular season play under Walters. Quan Martin looks to be making himself into a pro prospect as well. Coach Walters can sell early playing time and long-term success to a kid with clear pro prospects. And while Ann Arbor and Seattle will be tough to turn down, Coach Walters has to earn his coffee and close this recruitment down.
#Illini head coach Bret Bielema (@BretBielema) has arrived to join #Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters (@Coach_Walters) to watch 2023 4-star DB/ATH Kyaire Hill (@JyaireSuga) at Kankakee High School. pic.twitter.com/KIQAxdwHPg— Matthew Stevens (@matthewcstevens) September 17, 2022
What was the biggest critique of Lovie Smith as head coach? Was it hiring his son? Was it stubbornly sticking to the Tampa 2 scheme? Was it naming himself defensive coordinator? Was it almost never winning football games?
It could be any of those things (but definitely not the beard). But one major criticism is that Lovie didn’t really bring the hammer down and be the last voice to convince high-level commits to come to Illinois. While it worked with Isaiah Williams, One is special. He’s one-of-a-kind. Lovie’s sell and Corey Patterson’s relationship resonated with him. But that was rarely the case for other prospects.
Coach Bielema has to make the head coach hammer real. He’s got to be the guy who not only succeeds with downstate programs and borderline Power 5 prospects. He’s got to get Frank Ragnow, Hunter Henry, Russell Wilson-level talent to Champaign. And then the work of player development lifts the whole boat.
Until Coach B can successfully face down Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Notre Dame on the trail, Illinois will continue to be a frequent local afterthought. So coach, your table is set. It’s time to throttle the competition.