Remember the days when Jereme Richmond verballed to Illinois before his first high school basketball game? Remember how the 2013 Tim Beckman recruiting class had 14 verbals by the end of June? Those days appear to be long gone. Not only in Champaign, but in general.
For basketball, things have definitely shifted the last decade. After a long creep where players were committing earlier and earlier each season (the 2010 Illini class was completed 15 months before signing day as Jereme Richmond committed as a freshman, Crandall Head committed as a sophomore, and Meyers Leonard committed the summer before his junior year), everything has shifted back to later and later. It's May 2nd, and as of today, only nine of the top-100 players in the 2020 class have committed somewhere. Eight years ago that number might have been... 40?
Transfers have impacted that as well. Just looking at our experience, what was once "every single 2010/11 scholarship is spoken for by July 2008" is now "leave at least one scholarship open until April/May before the season to play the transfer market". According to Jeff Goodman's transfer list, there are now more than 700 college basketball transfers this offseason. Nearly everyone, including even Kansas and Kentucky, plays the transfer market now. In fact, the SFA transfer on campus right now (TJ Holyfield) will choose between Illinois, Kansas, and Texas Tech.
As a result, those freshman, sophomore, and junior year verbals are mostly a thing of the past. College basketball as a whole is back to the old system - coaches watch rising seniors in May and July, get them to visit in the fall (and sometimes the winter/spring), and get them to sign in either November or April.
Or, in the case of Brad Underwood, almost always April (or later). Underwood has signed 12 players so far at Illinois - only one (Ayo Dosumnu) signed his LOI in November. TJ Holyfield and Bernard Kouma would be players #12 and #13 to sign in April or later. Looking back over John Groce's classes, I believe every high school player he signed was signed in the early (November) signing period. Only the transfers (like Jon Ekey or Ahmad Starks or Kipper Nichols) were not added in November. So if we remove transfers from the equation and just look at high school commitments:
Players signed in November: Nunn, Hill, Morgan, Tate, Colbert, Black, Finke, JCL, DJW, Jordan, Lucas
Players signed in April/May: none
Players signed in November: Dosunmu
Players signed in April/May: Smith, Vesel, Eboigbodin, Bezhanshvili, Kane, Griffin, Jones, Higgs, Cockburn, (Kouma?)
So, uh, yeah - recruiting happens a little later now. In college basketball as a whole, yes, but especially in Champaign.
And it's nearly the same on the football side of Kirby. While college football as a whole hasn't changed much (besides the new, early signing day added two years ago), Lovie's recruiting could best be considered as "late". Let's cover college football first and then talk about Lovie.
The "early" signing day hasn't really moved college football much "earlier". Teams always had 80% of their class verballed-up in December - they just couldn't sign them until the first Wednesday in February. So the new signing date before Christmas more or less moved some the signings up six weeks. It would be like college basketball adding a signing date on October 1st for players to sign "early" before November 12th.
The process is still mostly the same (a fair number of verbals in the spring, a fair number of decommitments in the fall), with the only real difference being coaches trying to get every verbal signed before Christmas so that they're not still available for visits in January. The coaches who are hamstrung are the new hires. What used to be nine weeks of a mad scramble for recruits after you got the job (recruiting both available players and players verballed to other schools) is now three weeks of scramble before 75% of those players are signed. It has made January visit weekends a lot less important (and first year coaches used to feast on flipping players during those January visit weekends - the new coach at Florida would flip a player from Wake Forest and so the coach at Wake Forest would flip a player from Louisiana-Monroe and so-on).
For Lovie, when compared to former coaching regimes, the main word has been "later". As mentioned above, Tim Beckman's first full class had 14 commits by late June. Lovie hasn't reached 14 commits in any class until... December? January?
From my view, it's intentional. I believe in all four Lovie classes (including this one), we've reached May 1st with either the least recruits committed or the second-least (like right now - Illinois has two, Rutgers has one). Right or wrong, I think they intentionally take their time. I believe they love their senior-season evaluations and would rather hold off on a commitment (so they can evaluate a player a little longer) than grab a verbal right away.
The dangers of that are obvious - three coaches are telling a kid "commit to us immediately - we need you on our roster" and the Illinois coaches are saying "come back and see us in July and we'll talk further". But if this is the way we recruit (and again, I'm only guessing here), I'm guessing the benefit is a class of 18 players (or whatever) who are the best fit for the system and culture. The longer you evaluate, the more certain you are.
Which is why I have come to see the spring evaluation period (the assistant coaches - but not the head coach - can go out on the road April 15th through May 31st for an NCAA-capped number of visits to high schools) as more of a "getting to know you" exercise for a Lovie coaching staff (while some staffs are on the road trying to move players form 90% to 100% and get that commitment).
Again, these are just my observations. This isn't some "I've talked to sources and heard that..." article. I'm just saying that the average date for the first Lovie verbal in each of the last four classes is April 4th, and that's later than the average date for every other Big Ten school. Some coaches add commits at junior day visits in February - I'm not sure this staff would even accept a commit that early? Compare this to Tim Beckman, who would make a massive push (and, perhaps, a few massive reaches) during the April 15 to May 31 period. This just isn't like that at all.
Which means that we, the fans, don't get to have as much recruiting "fun". Both Brad Underwood and Lovie Smith seem to play recruiting very close to the vest, so the first time we hear the name Sidney Brown or Bernard Kouma is the day they verbal to Illinois. What was once 10 months of me obsessing over Elijah Thomas or Raequon Williams has, for the most part, been reduced to unknown, "surprise" commitments and spring transfer watches.
Don't get me wrong - the players who have committed to Illinois Football in calendar year 2019, both high school verbal (Shammond Cooper, Reggie Love, Jadon Thomposon) and transfer (Luke Ford, Wole Betiku, Trevon Sidney) all all at a talent level above what we've seen recently. I'm not meaning to take shots at that.
I'm just saying that the process will be slow. And not as much fun.
And, frequently, late.