This might be long. I have a lot of thoughts in my mind. Three people, separately, have asked me about football recruiting in the past week (two friends from St. Louis and one from Chicago), wondering where I am with everything. I get it - I no longer have a job, I'm desperate for things to write about, "the Illini football recruiting class only has one commit" is perhaps the #1 story right now (besides, like, will Ayo or Kofi return), and radio silence. My answer is a long one, but here goes.
My relationship with recruiting has changed so much over the years. Generally, over the last two decades, I would say that my opinions have followed this outline:
- 2000-2005: "Ron Turner is an NFL guy and he doesn't like recruiting and because of that he's not capitalizing on the Sugar Bowl - we need a RECRUITER".
- 2005-2010: "Ron Zook is a recruiting God no one understands just how good we're going to be for the next decade plus - we are recruiting right up there with the blue bloods."
- 2010-2015: "Wait so we had all these NFL draft picks but we still didn't win? Maybe I put too much emphasis on 'Jimmies and Joes not X's and O's'."
- 2015-2020: "Zook tried the Miami approach and it didn't work. Beckman tried the K-State juco approach and it didn't work. Maybe it's just "build on consistency and nothing else?"
Specifically, with Lovie, I've gone through nearly all of those emotions. I started out expecting his name to open every door. Remember how Illinois football was suddenly on PTI and Kornheiser and Wilbon were discussing how the name Lovie Smith was going to mean so much to recruits and their parents? I've referenced this several times, but there's a podcast out there from the week after Lovie was hired where I said that Lovie Smith + $4 million for assistant coaches was going to mean top-25 classes every single year. The $4 million turned out to not be true - it would have been the 9th-largest assistant salary pool, and it was only something like the 29th-largest assistant salary pool at $3.1 million - and the top-25 classes turned out to be... not something that happened.
At the time, though, it freaked me out. I was experiencing all kinds of anxiety. I'm going to do that thing where I quote myself, and I know that you sometimes skip over the quoted text because you maybe remember that article, but please read this quoted text in this one because it's important.
In May of 2016, I started to freak out about the recruiting numbers. We had a lot of scholarships to give and recruiting was slow to get going under Lovie. So I wrote a post I called Recruiting Anxiety and I talked about it. Here's what I said:
I'm still anxious. These days, if you're going to bring in a class of 27, you want to have around half the class committed by the Fourth of July. Just read the recruiting articles - how many players say "I'd like to have my decision out of the way before my senior season starts in August"? I'm being rather obsessive about this class and have a long spreadsheet listing the majority of Lovie's major targets so far. Perhaps 60% of those players on my list plan to have verballed somewhere before their first high school practice.
So if it's May 7th, and we would ideally have around half our class verballed by July, that means we need to land 11 players in the next two months. Maybe one every five days or so.
Yes, I'm being impatient. Yes, it's a little ridiculous to already be listing target class numbers for the Fourth of July. This class started behind, will continue to be behind, and that's simply the situation Lovie inherited and doesn't reflect on his ability to recruit.
But with almost all of the in-state blue chip recruits already verballed elsewhere, did I talk about how we're significantly behind? And did I mention that this class needs to be The One because the next two classes will be so small? And the scheme changes and the need for specific types of players immediately because they'll need to contribute early - did I cover that?
OK, I'll stop refreshing recruiting websites almost hourly. I'll maybe back off on my Twitter recruiting search obsession. I want so very badly for this class to be full of blue chips but I need to take a few deep breaths and maybe go for a walk.
But did I talk about how one-third of Lovie's second team in 2017 will be made up of his first recruiting class?
That was May 7, 2016. It's now four years later, we're in nearly the same position (this is going to be a full class and we're already way behind other commitment lists with in-state players all going elsewhere), and I have one-eighth of that anxiety. I certainly don't feel good about it, but I'm not obsessively refreshing like I was four years ago. Why not?
First off, I don't really have an answer for you. At least not a satisfying one. When my friend Ben reached out on Thursday, I didn't really have an answer for him besides "Lovie needs a top-35 class and 8 wins - hope it happens". We'll get to February, we'll see how the season went and how the class ranks, and we'll determine whether he cleared the bar or not. My thoughts have been 98% "we HAVE to play this 2020 season", 2% recruiting.
Believe me, part of me wishes I was anxious right now. For most, a lack of angst towards football recruiting right now can only be seen as "Lovie is great, everything is fine, la la la la la la la" homerism. Why would any Illini fan NOT be concerned when looking at the current Illini class and comparing it to all of the other Big Ten classes (including Greg Schiano in his first year attempting to rebuild Rutgers)? As this sank in, I found myself lying awake last night, not anxious about recruiting but anxious about "wait, AM I just a homer who is unwilling to face the cold reality in front of me?"
That's the main question I'm pondering here. When I check all the gauges, no, I'm not anxious at all. I've spent very little time the last six weeks even thinking about football recruiting. As I said last year, I've simply accepted that this staff likes to recruit "late". This is a snippet post, so let's pull a snippet from that one as well (May 2, 2019, so nearly one year ago today)...
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.
Underwood certainly changed his ways with the 2020 class, adding Coleman Hawkins in September, Andre Curbelo in October, and Adam Miller in November. For the first time under Underwood, we went about recruiting (or at least the "landing" part) in a traditional way. Will Lovie ever do the same? I doubt it. I've just come to accept that it's always going to be methodical and slow. That's quite a departure from my "oh my God we landed Lovie Smith he's going to own Chicago" ways in March of 2016, but... well, I guess I already covered that above.
Let's fast-forward to this class. On Signing Day in December I set the bar at where I think this 2021 class needs to be (top-35). I even laid out a list of specific expectations for the talent level, allowing for some project recruits but needing to see 12 "we can win the Big Ten West with a guy like that" recruits. I said that it needed to be like the 2020 class (when it included Jadon Thompson), only doubled with no high-end talent dropoff. This is the snippet post so I don't know why I'm doing all this prefacing before I finally get to the cut-and-paste of what I wrote:
If we were to tier this class, I'd go with this:
Certainly look like players who could win the Big Ten West: Love, Frenchie, Riggins, Davis, Spann, Newton (and Thompson)
Players somewhere between the two lists: McCoy, Tyler
Projects: Griffin, Sparks, Gardner, Shipton
Translate that forward to a 24-man class next year and I think the goals should be something like this:
Certainly look like players who could win the Big Ten West: 12 recruits
Players somewhere between the two lists: 6
Land something like that and with the numbers, you'll have a top-35 class to crow about. Minnesota's current class has 26 players, with (approximating here) 13 in the top category, 6 in the middle, 7 in the bottom, and it ranks 31st, so yeah, that would be the goal here. Their player average is 85.84 and our player average is 85.56 so yeah - a class of 25 at our current player average is going to be right at 35th nationally. That should be the goal, bowl game to sell and whatnot.
Since then I've basically been in "sit back and wait to see what happens" mode. I've set the bar at a very high mark, I think (our last top-35 class was 2009), so it's not going to be easy, but this is Year Five with a bowl game to sell. COVID or no COVID, that's the mark that must be hit.
The process now, for me, on the site, is to categorize all of the recruits as they come in and see which category they land in. My rankings will probably be a little different from the recruiting sites (CJ Dixon was a 4-star but I gave him 2.5 Cruises; Deuce Spann was a 3-star but I gave him 4 Cruises), but when it all averages out, it should come in somewhere around top-35. If it doesn't, well, I don't want to think about that just yet.
And perhaps that's my flaw. Maybe I use "I don't want to think about that just yet" as an excuse to hope that things will turn around instead of facing reality. I mean, that's how I'm treating this whole "I quit my job in mid-February and haven't made a dime since but everything will be OK and my wife is cool with this, right?" situation. Perhaps 2020 will be the year of the reality check.
But for now, this is just where I am. Waiting for names, trying to figure out which category they should go in.
And hoping there will be football in the fall.