Lovie Smith taking over Illinois before the 2016 season seemed like the perfect fit. Not only was his success and experience in the NFL appealing, but his nine-year run with the Chicago Bears was expected to help him on the recruiting front, particularly with in-state talent.
Those nine years in Chicago haven’t done much for Smith and the Fighting Illini. When it comes to the in-state recruiting aspect of Illinois football program — an area that should have been a serious strength for this regime — Smith and his staff have fallen flat.
Illinois’ 2020 class didn’t have one in-state high school prospect pledge. Right now, the Illini have just two commitments in the 2021 class, neither of which come from within the state border.
Recruiting in-state players has been an Achilles heel for Smith essentially his entire time in Champaign. Things looked pretty promising with his first class in 2017, landing nine players from the state, including Ricky Smalling and Kendrick Green. Both were ranked as two of the top 10 players out of Illinois.
Smalling was the No. 6 prospect out of the state while Green was No. 8, according to 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Since that 2017 recruiting class, Smith hasn’t landed a single top 10 prospect out of the state of Illinois. From 2018 through 2020, the Fighting Illini have added 11 in-state prospects and only three of those have been ranked inside the top 20 in Illinois. There have been 13 players from within the state boundaries that have been listed as a four- or five-star talent and not one had committed to playing college football in Champaign as a high school prospect.
The lone exception to the rule is tight end Luke Ford, who was a four-star tight end in the 2018 class and the top prospect from Illinois. After committing to and spending one season at Georgia, Ford decided to transfer to Illinois to be closer to family.
Illinois’ 2021 class isn’t looking much better, either. In this year’s cycle, there are seven four- and five-star players within the state. So far, six of them have committed elsewhere. Already, eight of the top 10 prospects out of Illinois have verbally pledged to another program.
All eight have committed to other B1G programs.
Not only are Smith and his staff failing to land those big-time in-state commitments, other B1G programs continue to invade the state of Illinois and poach some of the best prospects it has to offer.
From the 2018 recruiting class through the 2021 cycle, six B1G programs have landed a top 10 player out of the state of Illinois. Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern have each gotten five players from the state. Wisconsin and Michigan have each landed three and Penn State has snagged one.
Northwestern has held up its end of the bargain in keeping in-state players at home, while Illinois has let all of them slip through its fingers.
The state of Illinois is far from a recruiting hotbed for college football. It doesn’t produce the same volume of talent as states like Florida, Georgia, California, Texas and other states across the country. Even in the Midwest, states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania are more attractive recruiting areas. But there are more than enough in-state players who could’ve made significant contributions to the Fighting Illini program in recent years.
In the last four recruiting classes, there will have been 20 four- and five-star players from the state of Illinois. Smith hasn’t received a commitment from one of them at the high school level. A lot could still change in the 2021 class, and perhaps the Illini finally make some progress with in-state prospects in the coming months.
Based on recent history, don’t hold your breath for that to change.
Smith has found other ways to recruit at Illinois, and that should be commended. He’s taken a proactive approach to the transfer portal, finding several former high-ranking prospects and giving them a second opportunity in Champaign. As we saw with players like Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Oluwole Betiku Jr. and others, those commitments paid off for the Illini.
The result of those additions was a 6-7 season, an upset win over Wisconsin, a 25-point comeback victory over Michigan State and a bowl appearance for the first time since 2014. Smith’s newfound recruiting strategy has worked on some level.
Still, Illinois cannot continue to let in-state talent slip through the cracks, especially those four- and five-star products. The Illini can’t land all of them, but one or two per class — coupled with Smith’s proactive approach to the portal — would be a step in the right direction for the program.
When it’s hard to get in-state players to commit to a program, it usually doesn’t send a very strong message to other recruits outside the area. That would explain a lot of Illinois’ continued struggles on the high school recruiting trail.