CHAMPAIGN — Less than a week before Tim Beckman finalizes his 2014 recruiting class, the Illinois football coach got a head start on his 2015 class.
With a local product. Who plays his high school football less than 5 miles from Memorial Stadium.
Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald orally committed to Illinois on Saturday afternoon, becoming the first Class of 2015 prospect in the fold.
“I am committing to the University of Illinois,” Fitzgerald wrote on his Twitter account on Saturday. “Thank you to everyone who has helped make it possible. Excited to be a part of the family!!”
Illinois offered Fitzgerald a scholarship almost nine months ago on May 7.
It was his first FBS offer, and his offer list before Saturday’s commitment included offers from Akron, Florida International and Western Michigan, along with Ivy League schools Harvard and Yale.
Centennial coach Mike McDonnell said Northwestern stopped by Centennial on Friday to check out Fitzgerald, who had also received interest from Duke, Michigan, North Carolina and Stanford throughout his recruitment.
Fitzgerald threw for 2,008 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions last fall for a 4-5 Centennial team, completing 63 percent of his passes (166 of 263).
He added 406 rushing yards on 73 carries and six touchdowns.
The two-year starter for the Chargers has thrown for a school-record 3,308 yards in his prep career thus far, with 30 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
“Illinois is going to get a big, smart and excellent athlete,” McDonnell said. “He has great leadership and great character. He’s just an outstanding all-around quarterback.”
McDonnell said the decision by Fitzgerald — who averaged 223 passing yards last season and is neighbors with Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce — to commit early should ease some of the recruiting stress he’s had to deal with.
“I know he’s gotten a ton of mail at school and at home,” McDonnell said. “I’ve had lots and lots of coaches come in to school recently. It’s going to be a lot of pressure off him and he can be concentrate on being a teenager.”
Fitzgerald had two games in 2013 where he eclipsed 300 passing yards, throwing for 356 yards at Bloomington in Week 6 and a career-high 378 yards against Normal West in Week 9.
“That Normal West game, with our running back out with a high ankle sprain, it was all left up to him to move the ball down the field with his arm,” McDonnell said. “He’ll step up to any challenge. He enjoys it.”
Fitzgerald, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds, already has the frame college coaches covet out of a quarterback.
“He’s a big, strong kid,” McDonnell said. “People don’t really understand that sometimes. I hadn’t seen him before he came to Centennial as a sophomore, but he looks as big as the college guys. He’s put in a lot of hours in the weight room to do extra things to improve himself. It shows.”
Beckman has previously said he’d like to have at least one quarterback in each recruiting class.
Fitzgerald’s choice to stay close to home ensures the likelihood of that scenario happening, although he can’t sign a letter of intent until February 2015.
“He makes good decisions, and the players voted him as a captain, so they respect his leadership,” McDonnell said. “As a pure quarterback, I don’t really think he has a weakness.”