CHAMPAIGN — Calvin Smith’s list of nearly two dozen scholarship offers was pared down to a trio of official visits this month to Pittsburgh, Piscataway, N.J., and Champaign.
Illinois and Pittsburgh emerged ahead of Rutgers as the two favorites to land the Ocoee (Fla.) edge rusher. The tipping point? One of those programs had the veterinarian program Smith wants to pursue, and it wasn’t the Panthers.
Smith committed to Illinois on Thursday after visiting campus last weekend. Part of the fit with the Illini was the opportunity he envisioned for himself in defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ scheme. The other was the university’s college of veterinary medicine.
“Honestly, when I went there on my official visit, I was thinking I was going to go through the motions,” Smith wrote in a first-person essay for USAToday.com to announce his commitment. “When I got up there, it 100 percent changed my mind. When I got to Illinois, it felt like I should be there. The first day was great, and the second day solidified it.
“The veterinary school at Illinois was a huge factor for me. When it came down to my last two schools, one had a vet school and one didn’t. Illinois has one of the 32 best vet schools in the country. Growing up, I’ve always had animals — different pets like horses, turtles and fish. They’ve always been a part of my life. Early in life, I decided I wanted to be a vet. I couldn’t even say when, but from a young age, I wanted to be a vet.”
Smith’s commitment pushes Illinois’ 2023 recruiting class to 12 players, and he’s the eighth prospect to pick the Illini this month. Those commitments have come after official visits were made, with Bret Bielema and his coaching staff showing they can close on the recruits they’ve targeted.
Bielema stresses the family component of the Illinois football program during those official visits. The Illini coach, though, also understands that the recruiting pitch has to be tailored for each individual recruit with their own background and story.
“Every story is a little bit different, and that’s the way we approach each (official visit) weekend,” Bielema said while staying on the right side of the NCAA rules by not mentioning any recruit by name. “Just this past weekend we had a couple unique scenarios where guys maybe have unique academic interests.
“One wanted to be a veterinarian. The thing that blows me away is every time we have a special interest, the cooperation on campus is off the charts. I think that’s spearheaded by (athletic director Josh Whitman) and relations with Chancellor (Robert) Jones.”
Smith’s commitment continues the defensive focus this month on the recruiting trail for Illinois. He’s the second edge rusher to commit this week after Michigan native Mason Muragin did the same Tuesday, making for five of the eight commitments this week on the defensive side of the ball.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Smith is considered a three-star recruit by 247Sports, Rivals and On3. He helped Ocoee post a 6-4 record last fall as a junior and finished the 2021 season with 62 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hurries and 10 sacks.
Smith’s commitment means Illinois’ current 12-man class, which now ranks 11th in the Big Ten and 32nd nationally per the 247Sports Composite, is essentially split down the middle with offensive and defensive recruits. Joining Smith on the defensive side are Muragin out of De La Salle Collegiate (Mich.), Frederick Douglass (Ky.) defensive lineman Jamarrion Harkless, East St. Louis linebacker Antwon Hayden, Riverdale (Fla.) safety Jaheim Clarke and St. Rita edge rusher Pat Farrell.
“I like the way they’re going to use me,” Smith wrote in his essay. He projects as an outside linebacker at Illinois and mentioned associate head coach and outside linebackers coach Kevin Kane along with Bielema and Walters as a coach he connected with during his recruitment.
“I wanted to stand up, and 95 percent of the time their outside linebackers and defensive ends stand up,” Smith continued. “I feel like I can be different at Illinois from everyone else on their roster. I’m a different type of athlete. I rely a lot on my speed, my length and my reaction time, too. I have strength, but I like to use my speed.”