We haven’t seen any of these prospects in person. We wouldn’t know them if we bumped into them on the street. We don’t know their grades, their personalities, their families or their character.
But we’re all football recruiting experts. We absolutely know how to judge the UI’s incoming talent.
We have a system. We simply scan toward the last paragraph of an Illini commitment story and see who else made offers.
Like, where was Wisconsin or Nebraska in the mix? Or Michigan? Any perennial Big Ten leaders in the chase?
Well, jeesh! And phooey. None of those on the UI’s new nine-man 2014 commitment list declined any rival of that nature. For some, the only offer came from Illinois. Neuqua Valley receiver Mike Dudek chose the UI over North Dakota.
Rice Lake (Wis.) linebacker Austin Roberts had no tender from Wisconsin or anyone else. Only Mid-American schools appeared interested in Ohio defensive lineman Tito Odenigbo.
This news, if accurate, doesn’t breed confidence in Illini Nation, not after last year when the recruiting and performance left so much to be desired. Here we are in July with nine early commitments, and collectively they drew one Indiana offer and another from Northwestern.
With conferences being realigned monthly, should the UI join the MAC? Don’t answer that.
Before turning over this discussion to UI recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh, who has plenty to say, let’s go deeper on the latest July pickup, Julian Hylton (6-foot-1, 180) of Lincoln-Way North. He is a two-star with no other offers.
But here’s a guy who ran a blistering 10.68 time in the 100, finished second in the state 100-meter dash as a junior, is a solid student, starred as a running back last fall and demonstrated in summer camp an ability to play cornerback on defense.
Sounds worthwhile to me. Maybe a sleeper, huh, Alex?
“I understand, as a fan, you want to see an offer list,” Golesh said. “But in April, May and June, long before kids have played their senior season, there’s a lot to be said about early evaluations and projections.
“I want to reply sometimes to what you guys write (NCAA rules tend to forbid it).
An offer list isn’t always a good evaluation of how good a player is.
“What gets missed by services and reporters are a kid’s character, his home life and upbringing. The people he is around. The ability to reach his potential. And some kids can’t get out to camps and fall under the radar.”
Illini coaches point to Bryce Douglas, a freshman now on campus, as an example.
Under the radar at Plainfield Central, he had no offers. But the husky son of Bruce Douglas displayed extraordinary talent as a 315-pound defensive lineman in multiple UI camps.
“We loved him,” Golesh said. “Yes, I think we get some steals.
“Look at two freshman linemen, Austin Schmidt and Christian DiLauro. We got them early in the spring. If they had gone through summer camps, they would have had offers from everybody. Now they’re 285-pounders, and I expect them to be in our two-deep before their freshman season is over. You’ll be impressed when you see them in Rantoul.”
These young Ohioans will bear watching. DiLauro was a 185-pound sophomore at Uniontown, became a 230-pound tight end as a junior, drew an Akron offer as a 240-pound senior, climbed to 267 last February at Illinois, and said he reached 275 for spring drills (shades of Doug Dieken, Illini end who played tackle 14 years for Cleveland). Schmidt’s only offer was from Central Michigan. Both are already projected higher than their prep ranking.
“You can’t recruit based on what other people do,” Golesh said. “When I watch film, it is not our policy to make decisions based on other offers. But later in the process, you want to know who you have to beat.
“Ohio is important to us. Last year in Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton, I was the first to offer on maybe 20 kids, and we eventually signed five of them.
“Some waited and got more offers. Every story is different. And three years later, it will be legitimate to judge.”
Having moved with Tim Beckman from Toledo, Golesh is encountering a vastly different challenge. On one hand, he can be more picky about athletes who qualify. On the flip side, it’s well known that three of Toledo’s best skill players — athletes drawing NFL interest — wouldn’t have been granted eligibility at Illinois.
“At Toledo, we’d evaluate size, ability, speed, character, grades and home life, and maybe ignore some of the shortcomings and take a chance,” Golesh said. “We are recruiting a different kid academically here.
“Our academic reputation is a big-time selling point for us. This is a Top 10 public school in the country, the No. 24 ranked university in the world. We brought in three 4.0 students last year. We don’t take bad students. We can’t.”
But, yes, UI athletic programs are operating at a disadvantage. More so than most fans realize. When the athletic pool of prospects is formed each year, it immediately goes on the chopping block. Many potential athletes are eliminated based on GPA and test score marks that are stiffer than the NCAA clearinghouse requires.
Golesh says simply:
“We can’t get some of the kids we could at Toledo or Oklahoma State or Ohio State. That’s the reality.”
It is doubly so in terms of junior college transfers. The football staff turned in applications for more than 120 juco players to be enrolled this year. More than 100 were denied. Like, OK, your hands are tied. Let’s see you wiggle free.
Eighteen were accepted, and the Illini have five on campus. They added a sixth this month in Californian Trevor Kanteman, another of their under-the-radar prospects. He is a tight end from Pierce College who missed last season due to knee surgery.
Juco transfers offer the quickest way to provide depth for a struggling program.
Few universities in the country make it more difficult for them to enroll.
“Of the JC transfers we brought in, all but one were high school qualifiers,” Golesh said. “We got five initially, and we lost out late to Cal and Fresno State on two others. Kanteman counts on the past recruiting class. He had a lot of big-school interest early, tore his ACL, sat out last season and fell through the cracks at junior college. Put him in Chicago and we’d be fighting everybody in the country for him.”
Summer camps in some ways resemble the NFL combine. They offer an evaluation that is up-close and more complete, particularly when judgments are aided by high school film.
“We have seen him play on film or in person,” Golesh said, “and then maybe in a winter or spring sport. Then we see him in camp before the senior year. Athletes that age change a great deal between November of their junior year and the following June.
“We had some kids in camp this summer whose stock rose a ton.”
For the Illini, the summer checkups on Hylton and Springfield receiver Malik Turner, in particular, appeared to have put them over the top. And the Illini snapped up Lincoln-Way East lineman Nick Allegretti when his only offers were from Cincinnati and Northern Illinois.
There is, of course, another problem. When the seniors progress through their final season, more evaluations will be made. Major rivals will evaluate the Illini list and, when improvement is apparent, try to change minds.
Last year, the first Beckman class was hit by at least eight decommitments. Michiganders Josh Jones and Kenton Gibbs switched to North Carolina State. Evan Panfil chose Purdue. The losses were heavy. At the same time, Cahokia tackle Merrick Jackson fell short academically, and Ottawa’s Michael Hermosillo signed a baseball contract.
“You have a board,” Golesh said, “and you keep kids warm just in case. You always try to determine how committed a player is. We had some turn. Everybody has to deal with that. USC lost four on Signing Day. It is the nature of the beast.
“We had Reon Dawson committed for seven months. Then he jumped to Michigan (even though Michigan already had five top defensive backs already committed).”
What’s the deal?
Here’s the nutshell: Illinois faces a difficult uphill climb. The revival could come faster if (1) it was as easy to enroll juco transfers as it is at Kansas State, (2) marginal students could be accepted the way they are at Cincinnati and Louisville, (3) the UI was the university where, speaking athletically, state loyalty was a consideration and (4) access to all that population near O’Hare Field wasn’t so easy.
The Illini are playing Washington at Soldier Field in an ongoing effort to spike recruiting in the city.
“Chicago is our No. 1 priority,” Golesh said. “We have nine coaches working up there. Our goal is to keep Illinois talent in state. Ron Zook wanted to do the same thing. He tried and, at times, did a good job. Our plan is to flood it and keep swinging.”
The Illini landed one of Chicagoland’s Top 10 players a year ago, quarterback Aaron Bailey. So far, they have none of Edgy Tim’s Top 15. And for all the talk about the sprawling Public League, my information is that only three players are enrolling next month with scholarships at major schools ... and two of them probably wouldn’t have been accepted at Illinois.
Ohio has become the No. 2 recruiting area. Face facts. Nobody consistently beats the Buckeyes for the top in-state talent. That’s been true for the last 100 years and will be true for the next 100.
“When you recruit a kid from Cleveland,” Golesh said, “there’s a good chance that his coach, his parents and/or his neighbor has an Ohio State flag in the yard. And, academically, it’s easier to get in school there.”
Still, there’s more talent than Ohio State can possibly take, what with the 25-player limit.
Golesh informed that 182 Ohio players signed Division I tenders last year. If Boise State can win with Californians who slip past USC and UCLA, the Illini have a shot to climb with athletes that Ohio State can’t take.
Wrapping it up: Recruiting is the lifeblood of a football program, and Illinois appears to be a leader in discovering overlooked players early. But in the long term, how do you win if you can’t attract blue-chip recruits, and how do you recruit impressionable athletes if you can’t win?
Your answer is awaited.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.