CHAMPAIGN — Recruiting is a never-ending mission in the college athletics universe.
Illinois football coach Bret Bielema spent some of his Feb. 3 signing day press conference discussing the two Class of 2021 athletes his program had inked earlier in the day — Enterprise (Ala.) running back Joshua McCray and South Gwinnett (Ga.) linebacker Dwayne Johnson.
Then, the man who was hired by Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman on Dec. 19 moved on to a different recruiting topic.
“Obviously, (Feb. 3) is the end of ’21 football recruiting,” Bielema said. “It’s really now all focus onto the ’22 family, right on to the ’22 class, and it’s been a huge emphasis since I got here to put it in the state.”
Indeed, Bielema spent part of his first day as Illini football leader calling Mark Grounds, president of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association.
It didn’t take much longer for Bielema to tell everyone that each member of his coaching staff would possess an in-state recruiting role, eventually adding that all of the state’s high school football coaches would receive a phone call from the Illini.
The specifics of those roles were publicly revealed this past Thursday. One by one, the Illinois assistants tweeted out graphics indicating which portions of the state they’ll be targeting.
Even earlier in the day, high school coaches statewide took to Twitter to let their followers know Bielema is following through on his early promises.
“Had a great chat with @coachbenmiller today!” wrote Oakwood coach Al Craig, referencing the Illini tight ends coach. “I am excited about where the Illinois Football team is headed and it feels great as a high school coach to be a part of it again.”
“The Coaches from @IlliniFootball weren’t kidding when they said they were calling every HS in Illinois,” wrote Schlarman AD Eric Crist, whose school fields an 8-man team. “Appreciate the call from your staff (Thursday) morning @BretBielema. #GoIllini.”
A palpable excitement is spreading across the state when it comes to the Illini’s recruiting efforts. And Bielema has no interest in letting that excitement wane any time soon.
“We’ve made offers to in-state prospects and really kind of started from the northern tip to the southern tip and everything in between,” Bielema said on Feb. 3. “We’ve tried to uncover any guys that could help us ... and be a part of what we’re building.”
An interesting development on the college recruitment front is the creation of an actual IHSA football season for the 2020-21 school year.
The IHSA Board of Directors on Jan. 27 announced football practices can start March 3 and games can begin March 19, with the condensed season’s end date projected for April 24.
A fall 2020 season was not contested in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They would’ve normally finished up their junior season in December, (and) now they’re going to be finishing up in April and May,” Bielema said, “and that to me is a distinct advantage because young men develop a lot between the ages of 16 and 18. ... It’s even better evaluation physically of what they may be.”
Bielema also noted that the NCAA’s lifting of a rule on phone call limits to Class of 2022 prospects amid the pandemic is proving beneficial.
“Before, you would have to get them to reply back to you or get the coach to reply on a phone call. You could text them, but you couldn’t just call them direct,” Bielema said. “I’m a big believer in recruiting the parents, the coaches, the assistant coaches — whoever it is that’s going to help make that decision. Whoever helped make them who they are, we want to touch base with them.”
Bielema described a “juice” flowing through the Smith Center these days. One way to maintain that feeling, Bielema said, is by bringing “daily excitement” to the recruiting front.
“Our guys are getting swabbed (for COVID-19) at 5:30, 6 o’clock in the morning. We’ll settle in and work on football until about noon, and ... we had our last Zoom (with a recruit) at 7 o’clock,” Bielema said. “It’s just a daily grind, but I think it’s a grind that will be worth it in the end.”
Another element of Bielema’s recruiting plan involves hiring a high school personnel director and a college personnel director, the latter focusing on transfers and junior college athletes.
This lines up with something Bielema saw during his three years as an NFL assistant — teams carry an employee who focuses on talent coming from the college ranks and another who keys in on current NFL players.
“It’s wiser, smarter. It’s a part of the world,” Bielema said. “For us to gain a competitive advantage here at Illinois, I think we have to look at every advantage we can.”