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Six must-win in-state recruits for Illinois this summer

Can Bret Bielema’s staff lock down its best recruiting class to date?

Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

I try to avoid bouts of hyperbole in this job.

If you get caught up in the sports media industrial complex, you get a lot of people firing up the hot take machine and spreading insane, clickbait-driven opinions.

So please note that I intend to do no such thing when I state that this is Bret Bielema’s most important recruiting class yet as Illinois’ head coach.

Yes, this one is even more important than his first full class.

Sure, the first class set a core expectation for Illinois as a developmental program. But the class of 2024 is setting the foundation for the next evolution of Illinois football.

This is a different conference than the one Bielema re-entered.

Nebraska Spring Football Game Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Big Ten football goes in waves. Ohio State was the dominant brand until Jim Tressel’s controversy derailed the program. Bielema himself used those off years to burnish his resume with a pair of conference championships.

Ohio State reclaimed its throne under Urban Meyer, who totally crushed it in the NFL.*

*And by it, I mean Trevor Lawrence’s rookie season and Shahid Khan’s vision for his franchise.

Michigan has emerged to surpass Ohio State as the current big dogs of the conference. Jim Harbaugh went from the hot seat throne master to arguably the best in the game.

And this season, Matt Rhule brings his explosive offensive attack to Lincoln. The Scott Frost era is over, and the Nebraska faithful likely helped Frost pack his bags on the way out of town. So I suppose the conference may not have Big Red to kick around anymore.

Long-tenured Big Ten coach-in-waiting Luke Fickell is finally taking the reigns in the conference full-time for the first time in his career. He brings an excellent track record of recruiting and coaching success at Cincinnatti. Now, the former Ohio State linebacker joins a Wisconsin program with a recent track record of success in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin will likely improve rapidly and significantly under Fickell.

And in one year, the conference will be joined by Chip Kelly and Lincoln Riley. Both are offensive juggernaut coaches with scheme credibility and geographic proximity to elite athletic talent on both sides of the ball. They will undoubtedly raise the conference’s profile.

So Illinois isn’t just recruiting to beat the kinds of teams they have been playing. They’re recruiting to keep up with an evolving conference landscape.

USC Spring Football Game Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

They can finally sell success on the field.

2023 NFL Draft - Portraits Photo by Todd Rosenberg/Getty Images

It’s hard to recruit when the only dish at your restaurant is a wish sandwich.

You know, a sandwich that you wish had actual meat. But it doesn’t, so you just keep wishing when that’s all you can do.

Now, Illinois has the success of an 8-5 season. They had four defensive backs selected in this April’s NFL Draft. Things are so good that their defensive coordinator was poached for a head coaching gig with a division rival. These are the kinds of things most top programs take for granted. For Illinois, it all felt brand new again.

Young/new Illini fans probably don’t recall when Illini football had this level of an open competitive window. Hell, some older Illini fans think last season is the peak to which the program can aspire.

That’s what decades of irrelevancy will do.

So now, it’s time for Bret Bielema and company to strike while the oven is hot.

Any jackass can throw a party. But it takes real skill to keep the party going.

So how can the Illini capitalize on last season’s headwinds while maintaining the identity that brought them to the dance?

Illinois’ recruiting can continue reloading by continuing to win Power 5 battles for high-end in-state prospects.. So who are some targets who can make this vision real? How can Illinois maximize this opportunity?

By winning some of these battles, that’s how.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Iowa at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Darrion Dupree - RB, Chicago

Official Visit - June 9-11

The Illini have re-established a foothold in the powerful Chicago Catholic League. Signees like Pat Farrell from St. Rita, the Kreutz brothers from Loyola Academy, and Kenenna Odeluga from Mount Carmel are high-upside, athletic players from the storied conference.

Dupree, a rising senior from Mount Carmel is a quick, gifted running back who would be a versatile home run threat for Thad Ward’s group. While this battle has been seen as a Big Ten battle between the Illini, Wolverines, and Badgers, don’t count out the Missouri Tigers in this recruitment. All four of those schools have earned official visits with Dupree.

Winning recruitments like this go a long way to establishing the program’s long-term foundation.

Austin Alexander - Cornerback, Chicago Heights

Official Visit - June 23-25

Ryan Walters is alive and kicking in this recruitment. This is one of the biggest tests on the trail for Coach Fenelus and Coach Henry during this cycle. Alexander is a long, athletic corner from 100 miles from campus. He’s also being pursued by Tom Allen at Indiana and stealth program builder Lance Leipold at Kansas.

But you didn’t come here to see me give respect to solid coaches. You want me to say something petty about Ryan Walters and company. Who will win the “taking credit for Illini defensive backs getting drafted” on a pole match between two schools? Can Walters box out Bielema? We know that both head coaches will get deeply, personally involved in this recruitment. I don’t think the student will best his instructor in this one. #BoilerDown

Joe Barna - Defensive Lineman, Wheaton

Official Visit - June 23-25

Illinois’ failure to land in-state defensive linemen has been well-documented. The Roderick Pierce/Jamel Howard double whiff from last season is one of the most visible pock marks on Terrance Jamison’s sheet as a recruiter. Coach JMo has done an excellent job teaching the elite Illini front. Bielema trusts him enough to have given him more responsibility and an elevated title. I have no doubt that Jamison will be a head coach one day. But to make that real, he’s got to win some power five battles with in-state defensive linemen.

Barna’s recruitment looks to be focused on the Illini and Jamison’s alma mater, the Wisconsin Badgers. Luke Fickell is an animal on the trail. His staff is already tied into the Chicago area, so this will be a difficult recruitment to the end. Charlie Bullen is Illinois’ current lead for the Western Suburbs, so Jamison won’t be in the recruiting trenches alone on this one. Can they close?

Luke Williams - Wide Receiver, Naperville

Official Visit - June 9-11

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 29 Michigan State at Purdue Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Oh great, another Illinois vs. Purdue battle. Another chance to hand Ryan Walters an L on the trail while landing a top in-state talent. This one is looking like another Illini vs. Boilers battle for the top-500 prospect from Naperville North. That air raid offense in West Lafayette be damned, young man.

Williams is a tall, gifted receiver who would be joining a receivers room that coach George McDonald has rebuilt successfully on the trail and in the classroom. Williams is the kind of player Notre Dame and Michigan seem to always pluck from the state of Illinois. Watching Isaiah Williams get drafted at season’s end will be another positive on the trail in the future. But for now, joining a room that will feature Shawn Miller, Malik Elzy, Collin Dixon, and Hank Beatty in the future would make Illinois appear to be a great place to develop. But Graham Harrell will be a menace until the very end because he can sell an opportunity to play in a pass-heavy offense.

Tysean Griffin - Wide Receiver, Chicago

Official Visit - June 9-11

Landing Chicago Public League superstar Malik Elzy put the exclamation point on the class of 2023. Double-dipping in the CPL WR pool in back-to-back cycles would be excellent for Coach McDonald. Griffin is a slight, twitchy, fast receiver who projects as a wideout and returner at the next level.The Illini should be able to close this one. MP’s head football coach is former Illini receiver Chris James. The relationships involved are strong, the positional value is real, and this recruitment is winnable.

Eddie Tuerk - Lineman, La Grange

Official Visit - June 9-11

This one matters on a deeper level. Illinois has been deep in this recruitment for well over a year now. Marques Easley and Justin Scott, two elite defensive line prospects from the state of Illinois completely eliminated the Illini from their recruitments. They are going with blue bloods. Those are the kinds of players Illinois has to occasionally land if they want to compete with Michigan and USC.

So Eddie Tuerk’s presence looms large. Landing him means landing a high-end target from a fertile recruiting region who can likely pay dividends early in his college career. He has the versatility to play on both sides of the line, so he is a piece of moldable clay that this coaching staff can develop into an all-conference player.

That is, if Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t work his voodoo magic with Chicago area players. This is a tough but winnable recruitment. Illinois has been involved here for a long time, so hopefully that relationship is a strong enough bond to keep him away from Evanston…or Coral Gables.

Jeff Thomas flashback sequence commence…