Looks Like University Of Illinois - Joey Okla

Feb 10, 2021

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I don't want to make too much out of this, but I kinda do. I tried to write this post yesterday but felt like I still wasn't sure if I wanted to go there. I'm the king of reading too much into one piece of information, and I put up all these stop signs for myself, but despite my best efforts, I'm going to do it again.

Here's where I'm going with this: this is not a recruit we would have landed under Lovie. That's not some commentary on his talent or a tough recruiting battle with bigger schools or anything of the sort. It's a comment on the timing. I'm not sure Lovie ever landed a kid in February only days after offering. And THAT doesn't mean that Bret Bielema is some whiz-bang salesman who can talk a kid into committing. I'll... I'll try to explain.

I've probably written about this 10 times over the last five years: when athletes would be in for unofficial visits, bet it a junior day or maybe a visit during spring ball, we consistently saw the same comment from the kids on social media: "Thanks to Coach Smith and Coach Ward for having me down - I'll definitely be back". Kids would visit elsewhere in February and March and commit - kids would visit Illinois and say "I'll definitely be back". I think at other schools the last five minutes of the visit was "are you ready to commit?" and at Illinois it was "hope you can visit again soon".

I always stated that I saw this as intentional. Lovie even hinted that it was intentional. He'd always talk about wanting to get to know the players, how they'd be signing up for a 40 year relationship and they wanted to get to know each other (both sides) before finalizing the deal. It allowed the staff to evaluate the kid and allowed the kid to evaluate the staff. I believe that Samari Collier is the only kid across five classes to commit to Lovie more than a year in advance. For most classes, the first recruit came in March or April. I believe I studied this last year and landed on April 3rd as the average date for the first Lovie commit, but I can't find that post right now. Whatever the date was, I'm not breaking any news by telling you that Lovie Smith classes were slow to develop.

And I was always fine with that. Bruce Weber recruited kids earlier and earlier and earlier each year, trying to get commitments before the big boys came calling. Brad Underwood recruits kids later and later and later, having only signed four players in the fall signing period in the last four years (Ayo in November 2017, Curbelo and Hawkins in November 2019, and Luke Goode in November 2020). Four players signed in the fall, 16 signed in the spring or summer - yeah, that's a coach who likes to wait. And that's fine. If Lovie wants to wait, thinking he can find better talent after April and May evals and June camps, go for it.

I always brought up that point to defend Lovie. I'd get so many people reaching out with "Northwestern has 11 recruits in May and we only have two IS LOVIE EVEN TRYING?" and this was always my answer. It's not that he's not recruiting - he's dragging it out. He's taking his time. He wants to date for a long time before getting engaged. The more they can get to know a kid (or see him in person at a June camp), the better they feel about their offer. I'm not here to say whether that's right or wrong - that's just what I observed.

This recruitment, I think, is a significant change from that. This was offer one Friday verbal the next Friday. This was a very clear commitable offer on January 29th to a yet-to-be-ranked recruit. I know that didn't happen under Lovie.

I mean, there were offers before then of course. If Houston Griffith wanted to commit as a sophomore, Lovie's staff would have let him. That staff went full court press on Marquez Beason and he committed in early March. But there was a difference, I believe, between offers to top-100 kids like Beason and unranked offensive linemen with no FBS offers.

That's not a shot at Okla. It's WAYY early. There are two offensive linemen somewhere who will sign with, I don't know, Oklahoma this December and they don't have a single offer yet in early February. I'm not even talking late bloomers like Kendrick Green. Let's use Nick Broeker as an example.

Nick Broeker - like Joey Okla - got an Illinois offer in January 2018. It was his first Power Five offer. He doesn't get another Power Five offer until March when Kentucky, Minnesota, and Kansas offer him. Once assistants are on the road in April and May he gets offers from Michigan State, Missouri, and Ole Miss. He commits to Ole Miss in June.

But then in the fall Ohio State offers. So in December he takes a visit to Ohio State, a visit to Ole Miss, and decides to stick with Ole Miss. Where, much to our chagrin since this was an offensive lineman from Springfield, Illinois with a brother who was a walkon at Illinois, he went on to become a Freshman All American in 2019. He'll now be a four-year (five-year?) starter at left tackle for Ole Miss.

Flash back to February of 2018 when Broeker only had an Illinois offer (plus several MAC schools). By June he'd clearly be a high-end recruit, but in February, he was just a guy with an Illinois offer plus a bunch of smaller schools. His recruitment didn't really get rolling until March.

So, with all of that information, two things:

1. I'm not sure how hard Lovie was pushing Nick Broeker in early February of 2018. It might have been a full court press, but most likely, it was "hope you come back and see us several more times". So Joey Okla committing on February 5th is a significant change. It wasn't "come back several times - let's get to know each other". It was "we want you to be the first commit in our class". I'm probably reading too much into this, but that's such a significant change.

And please note this doesn't mean "recruiting is fixed!". It might be that slow-playing these things would be the better move. You're probably only going to add three offensive linemen in this class (maybe only two?), so perhaps a slow-play would have been better here. Continue to evaluate while seeing who else is out there. Illinois high school kids haven't even played their junior season yet. There's a dozen ways to recruit, and "first!" isn't always the best way. It's a completely different way than what we've been used to, but it's still just one of many different ways to go about it.

2. I'm not saying Okla would have ended up deciding between Ole Miss and Ohio State but I think I can say that we can read absolutely nothing into his offer list. He got an offer from a Big Ten school and he jumped on it. Would he have gotten six more Big Ten offers this spring? Would he have only gotten offers from Illinois and Eastern Illinois? We'll never know. We might have to fight off Ohio State in December or we might have jumped the gun trying to land an early blow in Wisconsin. My point: when a kid commits February 5th, his offer list means basically nothing. All you really know is "he's not one of the top-250 players in the country who have early offers from everyone this early".

Going through his Twitter timeline, it looks like there was definitely interest. He visited Northwestern for a game in October of 2018 (which would have been during his freshman year of high school). There's also photos of him visiting Iowa, Iowa State, and Wisconsin during the 2019 season. I'm guessing he would have had many more visits like that this past fall if not for this little global pandemic thing.

And that brings up another side-point here. 2022-class football recruiting rankings will be the worst rankings in the last 20 years. Some states didn't play football. Some are playing in the spring. Some kids are opting out. They can't visit, so you can't track "LSU, Auburn, and Florida State all had this kid in for visits this spring" (which tells you he probably needs a bump in the rankings). With very little data (and some kinds not even having game film), this is going to be one messed-up class.

So with a recruit like Okla and all of those early campus visits, you'd expect to see February visits for Junior Day at all the schools that had him visit for games, plus many assistant coaches traveling to his high school in April and May with additional offers each week. We won't have that data now, so it's hard to get a read on just how many programs would have been in pursuit.

Film-wise, he looks pretty good. The first thing that jumps out is that he sits really, really low in his stance. You want your linemen to sit deep, but you probably don't want them to be that deep. Some highlights (like the image at the very top) I was all "how is he not falling backwards at this point?". Still, that's a lot better than a lineman leaning forward towards his hand.

I like a lot of the little things he does in these highlights. Mostly his visual awareness. Here he's facing a three man front so on the snap he has a combo block with the right tackle. But as the outside 'backer comes in, he seamlessly leaves the DE for the right tackle and pancakes the OLB. Watch any high school game anywhere and you'll see another right guard in this situation just continue to double-team the DE.

I also like this awareness. This is a fairly simple play, and honestly, he blocks the blitzing linebacker into the running lane (nice cutback by the RB). But the blitzing linebacker was headed that direction, and once that happens, just usher him out of the play.

The thing I like here. Identify the blitz, dip just before contact, stay on him.

Watch the slight head flinch when he identifies the blitz (gotta be careful with that and a false start penalty). Again, watch any high school game and you'll see a kid staring at the dirt here and then combo blocking the nose tackle, allowing the blitzing linebacker free access to the backfield. Instead, he's coming across your face, and he picked the right spot to blitz on a run to the right, so escort him out of the play.

Size-wise, he's a little shorter (6'-3"), so my first thought here is future center. Maybe he's a guard, but 6'-3" in college (which is probably 6'-1.5" in socks) probably means center. I guess we'll learn a lot about that this season when we see how Bart Miller uses shorter guys like Doug Kramer and Blake Jeresaty.

Let's see - anything else? Oh - 6-7 years ago I remember that we recruited an offensive lineman from Wisconsin named Jacob Homa. He picked Iowa State. Maybe he has a younger brother in the 2022 class who can choose Illinois and then our offensive line class could be Okla and Homa.

Tom Cruise time. I like this kid. I like the optics (visited Wisconsin and Iowa multiple times as a sophomore, clearly on their radar as they evaluate their 2022 class, yet Wisconsin's former coach gets a verbal before they offer). Could be that it's a shorter lineman that neither team would have eventually offered. But it also could be a bit of a statement.

And the awareness he shows across these eight minutes of film - he does so many little things well - means I'm wandering into heavier Cruise territory. I'm between 3 and 3.5 here, and I'm addicted to using the quarter-Cruise graphics of late, so let's go with a quarter-Cruise here as well.

Joey Okla. Three and one-quarter Tom Cruises.


Brave Illini on February 10, 2021 @ 06:58 PM

Really liked watching his tape, thanks for providing the link. Kid looks like he was born to block. Great fundamentals, anticipation, and quickness off the snap. He has a presence and awareness, and a level of maturity, that you don't often see in players his age; the type who you think will never miss an assignment. He also finishes his blocks. I'm no expert on offensive linemen, but Okla appears to have everything you would look for.

Illinifan24 on February 10, 2021 @ 08:46 PM

You were right with how low he sits in his stance. There's quite a few times where he looks like he's playing catcher because of how deep he is.

Duce20 on February 12, 2021 @ 06:11 AM

Your overly cautious way of not calling Lovie out is admirable and nauseating. He wasn’t recruiting. He wasn’t even in IL. He was in Scottsdale.

Underwood isn’t waiting either. He’s trying to rectify a decade of irrelevance. That’s hard. Yes Lovie had that too but he also had a huge sway with his name and his staff until he quit, and hired Sponge Bob and Nepotism Miles.

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