CHAMPAIGN — Bret Bielema is a thief, by his own admission.
He believes all coaches qualify as such.
“I know it’s hard for us all to admit,” the first-year Illinois football coach said, “but we all steal from one another.”
Bielema is referring to the borrowing of other coaches’ ideas and concepts. It’s likely impossible to find a coach whose style doesn’t feature at least one element that another coach implemented first.
Bielema didn’t need to look very far for one of his premier recruiting ideas. Just across Kirby Avenue, in fact. Look no further than Ayo Dosunmu to leave an effect on the Illini football program, too, after all his considerable accomplishments with the Illinois men’s basketball program.
“To have a story like Ayo that turned around the basketball program, one of the comments that we’ve really played up was when he made the comment to stay in his home state and change the direction of the Illinois basketball program,” Bielema said. “Ayo probably doesn’t know how much we’ve used it as a football program, to share that same message. I’m looking for that Ayo. I’m looking for that guy in-state right now, out of this 2022 class, that can help us change the direction of this program for a long time.”
The Illini football staff’s recruiting push has resulted in five Class of 2021 athletes and one 2022 player pledging to the program since Bielema’s hire this past December.
It’s also produced an ever-growing number of offers, including to the likes of area products in Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley junior Aidan Laughery, Iroquois West junior Clayton Leonard and Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond sophomore Kaden Feagin.
Those three and other athletes statewide currently are participating in a six-week IHSA spring season, delayed until March and April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had targeted about 15 kids that we wanted to watch film on immediately. ... (Last) Saturday morning, I think I watched our first guy literally before 6 a.m.,” Bielema said. “That outreach that we’ve made to 500 high school coaches across the state has been invaluable.”
Illinois’ outreach plan also includes making sure prospects know they’re on the Illini’s radar.
Selah Brown, a Class of 2022 defensive lineman out of Kentucky, recently shared a screenshot of his cell phone’s home screen. It featured well-wishing text messages from Bielema and five of his assistants ahead of a basketball game Brown participated in.
“It’s really finding out more about that person than anybody else,” Bielema said. “If they have a big game ... we find out what that is, and we attack that moment.”