Sunday Conversation: Jimmy Fitzgerald
Jimmy Fitzgerald says he can still go places in Champaign without getting stopped or looked at curiously. That might change in the next year. The Centennial quarterback, who orally committed to Illinois on Feb. 1, was the first Class of 2015 prospect to give Tim Beckman’s program a verbal pledge. His senior season at Centennial is more than five months away, and the three-star recruit’s college days are at least nine months away. But the junior — who sports a 4.0 grade-point average at Centennial — sat down recently with staff writer Matt Daniels to talk about why he committed early, what he likes about Bill Cubit’s offense and his hidden talent.
What’s the past month been like since you committed?
It’s been crazy, to say the least. The day that I committed was wild. There was a lot of support from a lot of people, so that was always reassuring.
How much did your phone light up the day you committed?
Oh, man, it was crazy. It didn’t stop. It actually died in the middle of the day, so that was kind of nice.
What was your thought process on why you wanted to commit early?
The night before, and kind of the week before, my parents and I had been talking about it. I felt fairly strongly about joining the family and joining Illinois football. I talked to Coach Beckman, and I knew I was going to go over early to the Junior Day visit. I told him that I wanted to commit, and he was all about it. We met with him for about 45 minutes to an hour to talk things over. I actually announced it at the Junior Day event when everyone was announcing their names, so that was cool. I just said my name, where I was from and that I had committed to Illinois that morning. The place went crazy.
Was it important to you on being the first commit in the class?
It’s definitely huge because now it’s sort of my team for this class. I need to help recruit the guys the coaches want, but also guys I’ll play with and be teammates with. It’s definitely a big hat to put on.
What schools had contacted you the most since Illinois offered a scholarship last May?
Some Big Ten schools like Michigan and Indiana, along with Duke and Vanderbilt. A lot of those schools had coaching changes on their staff, so that affected the recruiting process.
What do you like about Illinois?
The coaching staff. I feel really comfortable with Coach Beckman and Coach Cubit. Coach Cubit is a really good teacher of the game, and he has a lot of knowledge, so I’m excited to play for him and learn more about the game.
Seeing what the offense looked like last year with Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback, how much did that influence your decision?
Just talking to Nathan about just how the offense went was nice. It’s a completely different offense, and he was a completely different player. They did some great things last year, so I’m excited to see what they can do.
When you were in eighth grade at Holy Cross School in Champaign, did you envision being a Division I quarterback?
It’s definitely a dream come true.
What sports did you play growing up?
Baseball, basketball and football.
When did you decide to really focus in on football?
Before my sophomore year I decided that I wanted to try to play in college, and I pretty much knew I’d have to play year-round in order to achieve that.
Was it hard transferring from St. Thomas More to Centennial after your freshman year at STM?
It wasn’t too bad because I had played travel basketball and AAU basketball with a lot of football players at Centennial, so I had a friend group going in. That was big.
Do you miss baseball and basketball?
Definitely. I joke around with some people that I’ll play baseball again, but I’ll stay focused on football.
Do you ever worry about getting burned out by just concentrating on one sport?
Not really. I’m playing on a 7-on-7 team in Chicago with Core 6, so that’s huge. We go up there every Sunday, and it’s like a game-day experience each time. I’m playing against the best kids in the state, so that’s huge. Our first practice was in late January, and we have our first scrimmage (today). I knew Trent Sherfield (a Vanderbilt signee from Danville) had done it last year, so I talked about it with him, and he said it was a really good experience for him.
What are you hoping to get out of working with Core 6?
I believe the last tournament is in mid-June, so just to have the opportunity to play against the best guys and compete every week, you can’t really substitute that with anything.
How are you going to approach next season at Centennial knowing opposing defenses will want to limit a Big Ten recruit?
We should have eight starters back on offense, so we’ll have a really good group of seniors coming out. I think things are looking good for us, so as long as we come out and execute, we should be fine.
How would you describe your junior season with Centennial?
The first couple games we struggled just getting the game experience, but it was Week 5 against Urbana, all of our players clicked and were ready to play on varsity. The last five games of the season, we started to play really well, so I’m hoping that will carry over to this season.
What do you need to work on going into your senior season?
I definitely want to try to be like a coach on the field. I also need to be able to read defenses better and process that information faster. I always want to work on my accuracy, so I can put the ball where the receiver wants it and they can get some yards after the catch.
Are you still getting contacted by other schools?
Yeah, I am. Some of the schools don’t really stop. I tell them that I’m really happy and firm with my decision. Especially being the first guy in the class and trying to help recruit some of the guys from the Chicago area and from around the state, it’s huge to be firm with my decision. I believe in Illinois.
Do you feel high school players in the state who play outside of the Chicago area don’t get some of the credit they deserve?
I feel like if you’re good, they’ll find you. There’s a lot of good players all around Illinois, like Gabe Megginson. He’s blowing up, and he’s from Jacksonville.
How often do you stay in touch with regarding some other Class of 2015 prospects who Illinois is interested in?
On my Core 6 team, I have wideouts in Miles Boykin, Leon Thornton, Flynn Nagel and Cameron Green. They are all guys that Illinois has offered, so I’m hoping to get a few of those guys down. There’s a lot of guys on the defensive side of the ball, too, like Jack Hockaday and some cornerbacks that I stay on.
Who was your favorite Illinois player growing up?
Way back when, it was Morris Virgil. I’m a big Juice Williams guy, too. He’s a big arm guy. And Mikel Leshoure because he went to Centennial, and I have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
I can play the ukulele. I picked it up in December. We went on a family trip to Hawaii last spring break, and there were some people playing the ukulele. I thought, I should go get myself one of those, so I picked up the ukulele.
What’s your favorite subject in school?
I took an economics class last year that was pretty fun, and I like physics. I just like understanding how things work.
What do you want to major in at Illinois?
Have you asked your neighbor, John Groce, for any advice during the recruiting process?
The day after I committed I went over and talked to him. We sat down and just talked about it. He’s a really good guy and mentor to have.
Recruiting seems to get earlier and earlier each year. Were you surprised when coaches started to show much interest in you?
I didn’t really expect it after my sophomore year. I had heard that the junior year was the big year when everything happened, so getting that interest as a sophomore was interesting, but I just tried to keep a level head and keep working hard.
What’s your craziest recruiting story?
This winter, Dominic Stampley and Steven Lee, two wide receivers at Centennial, threw with me for the Indiana offensive coordinator outside. It was snowing and sleeting. It was awful weather.
How’d you throw the ball that day?
Not real well. It was really windy, too.
Do you want to graduate early from Centennial, enroll early at Illinois and take part in spring practices in 2015?
I definitely have to sit down and talk with my family. I don’t know if I’m ready to make that decision yet, but I’m going to structure my schedule so I’m able to graduate early, but I don’t have to. I talked to Mike Dudek, who graduated early, about that topic.
What was one thing you learned the most about the recruiting process?
Definitely don’t get too high or too low on anything. You just have to keep a level head and keep everything in perspective.