By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Here in the state of Illinois, 45 high school seniors have committed thus far to play football next fall at FBS universities, according to recruiting guru Tom Lemming’s list at MaxPreps.com. Only three of them have committed to play at the University of Illinois.
Also here in the state of Illinois, there are nine high school seniors ranked among the nation’s top 167 players in their class, according to Lemming & Co.
But not a single one of them has committed to play at the University of Illinois.
Yes, when it comes to the pigskin, the Land of Lincoln is in full crisis mode – and not just because of Jay Cutler’s bum thumb. Down in Champaign at the state’s flagship school, the football program is listing, which is why Toledo’s Tim Beckman was brought in to right a ship that Ron Zook wrecked after a 6-0 start to the season.
Just like with any coach at any school across the nation, Beckman’s success at Illinois – or lack thereof –will largely be determined by the caliber of talent that he can lure to Memorial Stadium.
To win big at Illinois, it’s been proven that a coach needs to be able to recruit nationally, whether that be by dipping down into the “speed states” south of the Mason-Dixon (always a wise move), locking up a major metropolitan area (like Zook and Mike Locksley did for a while with Washington, D.C.) or extending west into California (which was Mike White’s tactic during the 1980s).
But, the fact is, a successful football coach at Illinois also needs to be able to recruit locally, something that Zook did with diminishing success – and results – after he made a big splash early on by signing celebrated Chicagoans Juice Williams and Martez Wilson.
It’s true that Illinois may not produce as many elite-level football players as some states. But, the disturbing trend is that currently none of the top-rated stars the state is churning out appear to even have U. of I on their radar right now.
So far, of all the high schoolers living in Illinois, only Bolingbrook guard Robbie Bain, Lincoln-Way East receiver Jason Robertson and Mount Carmel defensive tackle Vontrell Williams – none of whom made MaxPreps’ national list – have committed to come to Champaign.
Meanwhile, Iowa has swooped across the border to sign four Illinois natives, including Montini’s 6-foot-4, 300-pound lineman Jaleel Johnson who is ranked No. 142 nationally by MaxPreps. Four other Illinoisans are actually staying in state – but doing so by heading to Northwestern, which counts Joliet Catholic running back Malin Jones, ranked 98th overall, as one of its commitments.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has picked off 46th-ranked Tommy Schutt, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive lineman from Glenbard West (who originally committed to Penn State). Dan Voltz, a 6-4, 290-pound offensive lineman from Barrington who’s ranked as the nation’s 67th-best player, is headed to Wisconsin. And Michigan has snapped up Crete-Monee’s Anthony Standifer, a free safety rated No. 97 overall.
Rochester High School’s prolific quarterback Wes Lunt is headed all the way out to Oklahoma State. And Florida and Nebraska have swooped in to steal ranked players from Illinois in Bolingbrook’s Gainesville-bound linebacker Antonio Morrison (No. 82) and Montini’s record-setting receiver Jordan Westerkamp (No. 167), who is now wavering on his commitment to the Huskers.
By taking a visit to Notre Dame.
Historically, two schools – Ohio State and Michigan – have been the Big Ten’s most consistently powerful programs. And each has become so dominant in large part because they’ve been able to regularly outrecruit everyone else within their own state’s borders.
This year, of the four Michigan natives ranked nationally by MaxPreps, three are headed to Ann Arbor (the fourth is committed to Michigan State). Meanwhile, even in a season defined by chaos and coaching turnover, Ohio State has still secured commitments from six of the Buckeye State’s 10 nationally ranked players.
If Beckman wants to establish a powerful program of his own down in Champaign – and I’m sure he does – then he needs to start by first laying a strong foundation at home. Because, really, if you can’t convince your own state’s stars to play in Champaign, how can you expect to convince other state’s stars to do so?
Quite simply, when you’re a Big Ten conference program, your state’s best players should want to play for the flagship school. Right now, in Illinois, they don’t. And judging by his actions last week, Beckman knows it, which is why I was encouraged to learn about the interesting steps that he’s taking toward changing that mindset.
Last Wednesday, according to the Champaign News-Gazette, the Illinois football office called Scott Hamilton, the head coach at Tolono Unity High School near Champaign. They wanted to know if Hamilton was available to meet with Beckman the next day.
A surprised Hamilton said sure, and so Beckman went on to spend half an hour at Unity, chatting with Hamilton about a number of topics, including some of his ideas about spring practice and getting the state’s high school coaches involved.
“I’m going to be in this guy’s corner,” Hamilton told the News-Gazette. “The more he can do that with the coaches in Illinois and work his way out, the better it’s going to be.”
On Thursday, Beckman went on to make eight more stops in the area, starting in Danville and heading west to visit all three Champaign-Urbana public schools as well as St. Thomas More, the area’s lone Catholic school.
The News-Gazette posed the question that while the local schools in Champaign-Urbana have recently produced their share of big-time players such as J Leman and Mikel Leshoure, they aren’t considered recruiting hotbeds. So, why take the time?
“That’s what recruiting is all about, getting out and spreading the word of this staff,” explained Beckman, who hopefully is taking his show to the high schools all across the state. “Our ambition of the staff is to recruit this state like it is the state university. It’s good to see coaches. The lifeline of the program is recruiting.”
And the state of Illinois should be its backbone.
Beckman sounds as if he might be a guy who can get that straightened out.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.