Out with the old, in with the new.
Wednesday was national signing day, which saw a lot of new faces welcomed to the Fighting Illini family. And it’s safe to say head coach Bret Bielema is confident with the talent they were able to bring in.
“To have three signing classes in a row that have ranked among the best in Illinois history since they’ve been taking the notoriety of this is pretty special,” Bielema said.
Having franchise players such as Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph Jr., Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington declare for the NFL draft left Illinois has a lot of holes to fill. With 19 players signing with the Illini this week, they did just that.
Of the 19 signees, 16 are high school players and three are junior college players. All three JUCO players are high school qualifiers, meaning they have all satisfied the NCAA academic requirements to be eligible as a freshman.
Six of the newcomers were rated as four-star recruits, highlighted by offensive lineman Andrew Dennis (#7 IOL, #169 Overall) who chose Illinois over Clemson and Penn State. As great as that is, Bielema has faith in each of every one of the guys that are joining the program.
“To me they’re all five stars when they come in here,” Bielema said. “We’re going to treat them like they’re the best they’ve ever been and try to get them to a place they’ve never been before.”
With national signing day officially over, Bielema and Co. are anything but.
“We’re not quite done, this world that we live in,” Bielema said. “We’re currently active in the portal world, we’ll probably bring in another group of players that we’ll announce as they come.”
In the new transfer portal era, first impressions go a long way even with the recruits that initially choose another school over Illinois.
“Even if they don’t come with us today, what we’re kind of finding out through this recruiting process in the portal world, how you treat them now may come back to help you two to three years from now,” Bielema said.
Another point of emphasis is that 13 of the 19 incoming players are starting in the spring semester as early enrollees.
Bielema discussed the many benefits of starting in January such as starting classes without the pressure of a game week environment, having multiple chances to go home before the season starts and having four installs (conditioning camps) before taking the field.
“It’s a great day to be here as a head coach,” Bielema said. “I think it’s just the beginning of really starting to turn the tide.”
With a lot of work needing to be done to improve upon last year’s woes, Bielema is comfortable with the progress made after a busy signing day for the Illini.
“I think this is another good step in the right direction to get us where we want to be,” Bielema said.