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CHAMPAIGN — No true way exists to determine if Bret Bielema’s claim is 100 percent accurate.

Aside from spending perhaps an entire week scouring social media for evidence that opposes his assertion.

But the Illinois football coach’s main point extends beyond claiming a victory over all other FBS programs.

“We were the first school out of whatever it was, 130 Division I teams, we started sending out official visit invites a month ago to our guys,” Bielema said. Several Illini recruits hit Twitter late last month to share a graphic pertaining to those invitations.

“We really want to be ahead of the curve,” Bielema continued. “A lot of people have followed us. It’s really interesting to see a lot of the same graphics we use, people have copycatted.

“The idea of being first in recruiting is good, but it’s not always the end-all. You’ve got to be thorough in what you’re doing.”

The recruiting approach is fronted by executive director of personnel and recruiting Pat Embleton and includes director of recruiting Nate McNeal and director of high school personnel and Illini relations Terry Hawthorne, among other staffers.

And it paid off again Monday afternoon when New Jersey quarterback Donovan Leary verbally committed to Illinois, joining a Class of 2022 that also includes offensive guard Joey Okla.

“I’ve never been worried about who was committed and who wasn’t committed. All I can do is worry about the ones we want,” Bielema said. “You also have to understand these young men are in a very unique timeline in their life. ... Especially in this COVID world, I’m not overly wrapped up in, we’ve got to have this number by then.

“When it does break, though — when the floodgates open — I would suspect we might get a pretty good flurry of commitments.”

Bielema is anticipating the eventual conclusion to the NCAA Division I Council’s recruiting dead period, which currently exists through May 31 because of the ongoing pandemic.

“From June 1 to June 28, that cutoff period is going to be ... a 24-7 job because it’s just going to be vital to our program to get as many people on campus as we can,” Bielema said. “There is an NCAA rule that allows people to be on campus here. We can’t give them tours. We can’t be involved with it. We can’t talk to them. But it’s definitely something that we saw grow across the country.”

In that vein, Class of 2022 offensive lineman Hunter Whitenack from Carlisle, Ind., posted a picture on his Twitter account on Saturday of him standing next to the Red Grange statue outside Memorial Stadium.

Without traditional visits in play, though, Bielema and Co. are required to get creative in keeping recruits interested in the Illini.

Enter what Bielema calls a three-tiered Zoom process. First comes an introduction to Illinois’ staff and the Smith Center. Next comes the academic aspect. And last is “target-specific” discussion, in which the Illini connect with recruits about topics such as the weight room and position groups.

“It’s probably one of the more frustrating parts, but it’s part of the world we’re living in,” Bielema said. “I spend more time in this (Zoom) room than any other room.”

An in-state focus has become a pillar of Bielema’s Illinois recruiting push. That extends beyond 11-man football into the Illinois 8-Man Football Association, which boasts 20 active teams this spring season.

Bielema said he’s successfully recruited one 8-man player in the past. South Dakota linebacker Chad Greenway played at Iowa between 2002 and 2005 before being selected by the Minnesota Vikings 17th overall in the 2006 NFL draft.

“My batting percentage in 8-man football is pretty good,” Bielema said. “We’ll get into it. We’ll love it, embrace it, especially here in the state as it grows. ... It doesn’t matter if it’s 8-man, 3-man, or 11-man or 12-man in the Canadian world. The fact they’re playing football and they do the things to compete, that’s what’s gong to be important to us.”

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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