10 Names You'll Learn In 2021
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I feel like I should say "this is my yearly post on January 2nd" now. I always say that it's my yearly New Years Day post, but 3 of the last 5 years I wrote it New Years night or the next morning. Same thing this year, I'm afraid.
As always, we'll start with a quick recap of last year's 10 Names You'll Learn:
1. Chase Brown - That one was a win. I said in that post a year ago that he was the only player I've ever graded after an in-person viewing (he was announced as a transfer right at the start of 2019 training camp and I got to view him in person the next day and then rate him with 3.5 Cruises). That led to him leading off my 2020 Ten Names You'll Learn list. And then he was a third-team All Big Ten running back as a sophomore this fall.
2. Bella Loya - This is where Covid gets its first mention. The softball season was canceled mid-March, so you didn't get to learn about the sophomore catcher on the softball team.
3. Brandon Weston - Morgan Park pipeline, baby. Ayo, Adam Miller, and now Brandon Weston picks... wait, Seton Hall? And now he's at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix?
4. Jerry Ji - Covid again. The golf season was canceled, so you didn't really get to learn about the freshman sensation. Because golf did have a fall (2019) season and played until mid-March 2020, they did name all-conference teams, and Ji was Big Ten Freshman of the Year, so I'm counting that as a win.
5. Ellie Holzman - OK, she needs to be on the 2021 list. National Gatorade Player of the Year for high school volleyball but then she misses her freshman year due to injury and her redshirt freshman year is put on hold because of Covid. But volleyball starts up again in less than two weeks so she needs to be on this list.
6. Tyler Rybarczyk - Covid again. Baseball season was shut down after 13 games so nobody learned any names.
7. Derrick Smith - This one wasn't Covid. You learned his name. But maybe not in a good way? Perhaps you most frequently heard his name being said in a sentence like "why do we have a linebacker like Derrick Smith playing safety?".
8. Sarah Haveman - You didn't learn about the Cross Country coach because Cross Country was canceled.
9. Dominic Lovett - I don't even want to talk about it. The WR from ESL picked Missouri.
10. Austin Hutcherson - I don't even want to talk about this one, either. Stress fracture in his back and it was announced today by Brad Underwood that he's out for the entire season.
So that list was kind of messy. A bunch of players on teams whose seasons were canceled plus two recruits we whiffed on and then Chase Brown + Derrick Smith.
And this next list will be an adventure as well. Volleyball will play this spring (and this fall?). Illinois high school football is supposed to play in the spring so that next breakout junior recruit probably isn't even known yet. Coaching change in football and we don't know who will return and who might transfer. So this one will be a mess.
But I always give you ten names, so...
1. Ellie Holzman
Gonna Rua It Back here and pick Holzman again. I rarely repeat names on these lists - if you didn't learn their name, then I was wrong - but Holzman hasn't been able to play. Volleyball was postponed in the fall.
It does start up in just over a week, though, so I'll start my research AFTER this first one and just put Holzman here in the top spot. She was the national player of the year in high school in 2018-19. She missed her freshman season in the fall of 2019 with an injury and then she (and her teammates) missed all of 2020 with the season postponed. So let's just call this one a carry-over. You didn't get to learn her name because of Covid, but now you will.
2. Snook Edwards
I always choose a current football player - someone who didn't play a lot this year but is going to play a lot next year. Chase Brown was my choice this time last year. This year that's nearly impossible. For starters, I have no idea who is and isn't going to return. So that changes things when it comes to both players I might name here (if I say "watch out for redshirt freshman defensive end Cooper Davis", with my luck, he'd put his name in the transfer portal tomorrow) as well as younger players I might name here. The next paragraph will explain what I mean by that.
I've chosen incoming-freshman Snook Edwards. I've chosen him because I expect that some of the senior cornerbacks will graduate and leave and some of the backups might transfer (like Marquez Beason). Which means that a true freshman like Snook Edwards might have to start his first ever college game. Which means you're absolutely going to learn his name immediately. (And as soon as I say that, we will now hear that Nate Hobbs will return and Marquez Beason has chosen to stay.)
3. Nico Lang
Gonna be a fascinating spring for golf. You might not follow very closely, but I do, and this will be maybe the biggest "how does Mike Small even pick a lineup?" season of the last 10+ years. I don't mean that as a "he has 10 All Americans how does he decide?". Just that he has all of these guys and no clear top tier. Honestly, this is more of a bad thing than a good thing.
In 2017, his lineup choice was simple: which two of the three freshmen should be out there? It was going to be Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer plus Edo Lipparelli and then he had three freshmen (Michael Feagles, Gio Tadiotto, and Bryan Baumgarten). That was the entire roster. So each week, Small just picked the two freshmen who would be in the lineup (and the 6th guy would play as an individual).
This year, it's a full 10 guys for five spots (and would have been 11 if Varun Chopra had not transferred to Northwestern). Two of last year's seniors return due to the Covid rule (Michael Feagles and Gio Tadiotto) and they're joined by now-senior Brendan O'Reilly. There are four juniors - Luke Armbrust, Adrien Dumont de Chassart, Tommy Kuhl, and Noah Gillard - with Armbrust being the only one who hasn't been in the lineup in the past. There's also last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year (Jerry Ji) and likely this year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year (Piercen Hunt, perhaps Small's best domestic recruit in half-a-dozen years).
And then there's Nico Lang who transferred in from West Virginia this offseason. Lang, who is from Germany, had a really solid freshman year at WVU (a year that was cut short by Covid) and has now transferred to Illinois. Illinois faced off against West Virginia once in the fall of 2019 at the Tavistock Invitational. Illinois had two guys at +6 (which tied for 43rd) and three guys at +7. Nico Lang was also +7. So I'm going to use that small sample size to tell you that he's going to right there in the mix this spring.
4. Danny McGuire
I'll be honest - I know nothing about him. I just googled the top 2022 college football recruits in the state of Illinois and looked for the highest-ranked offensive lineman at the moment. That offensive lineman: Danny McGuire from Marist. So if Bret Bielema is going to build a Wisconsin-like offensive line at Illinois, the first recruit to land: Danny McGuire.
And yes, I realize that Illinois didn't play high school football this fall. And junior year is when you learn all of the top names. That list is "best sophomore offensive linemen in the state", and a list like that doesn't have at least 10 blue chip recruits. If Illinois does play HS ball this spring, a bunch of names will emerge. So maybe this one should be "4. The Best 2022 Offensive Lineman In The State, Whoever He Is".
5. Randy Ballard
I've mentioned his name a lot this fall (and I recorded a podcast with him) but you might read that and say "wait, who is that again?". Randy Ballard is the Director of Sports Mecidine for the DIA. Which means he's in charge of everything Covid. Like, everything. Testing, methodology of isolating athletes, safety protocols, everything.
Which means that Randy Ballard is really important this spring. The monumental task: get the basketball program through the next three months with no positive tests (and if there are positive tests, handle the shutdowns appropriately to get back on the court as soon as possible". Obviously, he can't control that - one student manager goes to one party and then heads to the locker room the next day and we're screwed - but he's the guy charged with the over-the-top, belt-and-suspenders testing at Illinois, trying to catch and contact trace before any outbreak were to happen.
6. AJ Casey
There always has to be that one name when it comes to basketball recruiting, and for 2021 I'm picking 2022 recruit AJ Casey out of Chicago (Whitney Young). We know the drill here, so I'm not going to try to explain it. Top prep player in Chicago. All the blue bloods will be involved. Currently ranked right around #20 which is our sweet spot. So we need to go head-to-head with everyone and win.
7. Shaylah Scott
If all sports do play, it's going to be a very busy spring. Volleyball going on while Softball is going on while Soccer is going on plus a dozen other sports. So it will be fairly easy for a small sport star to get lost. I went looking for that small sport star whose name you'll learn and I think I found her on the gymnastics team: junior Shaylah Scott.
As a sophomore, she was one of the finalists for the Eddlemen Female Athlete Of The Year award (which went to Jackie Quade - Ayo won the Male Eddlemen award, just like he will this year). Looking over her stats, it looks like she was having a sophomore breakout when all sports were shut down. That earned her second-team All Big Ten, so even though I haven't studied anything about the gymnastics team, I'm pushing all in here and saying that Shaylah Scott is the next gymnastics start at Illinois.
8. Bart Miller
As of right now, we only know the name of two football coaches - the offensive coordinator and the offensive line coach. And I'm picking the line coach as the name you're going to learn. Mostly based on his impressive presser last week (say that five times fast: impressive presser impressive presser impressive presser I guess it's not that hard.
Miller won the presser and now he has to win the recruits. So that's why I'm putting him here in the "names you'll learn category". I'm hoping that you hear his name two ways this year: 1. "This offensive line is night-and-day better under Bart Miller" and 2. "Yet another OL recruiting win for MIller".
9. Branden Comia
This is the player perhaps most robbed by Covid. When the baseball season was suspended after 13 games (and eventually canceled), Comia was slashing .426/.526/.702. So, like, maybe headed for an All-American season.
Now baseball returns, and Comia will be a junior. Which means he'll be draft eligibile. Which means if he's an infielder with a 1.228 OPS, he'll likely be drafted very high.
10. Joey Biggs
This is a cop-out but also a VIP. Perhaps the biggest Very Important Person in Illinois athletics the next three months is basketball Director of Ops Joey Biggs. The travel plans, the "we're not spending the night there we're flying back immediately after the game", the "hey student managers, you know that you could single-handedly suspend the season by visiting one friend in one apartment" guy, is Joey Biggs.
Don't think I need to say anything else. Like I said above, Biggs can't control everything. But he did shut down the Tennessee-Martin game and then wave off some reschedules. So he's the guy sitting on the "let's get to March* Covid-free" throne.