By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) It’s been a week of daffy tantrums, quarterback defections and assistant coaching suspensions for Illinois football.
But it’s also been a week of recruiting.
Pretty solid recruiting, at that – especially by recent Illini standards.
With a late flourish on Wednesday morning, Illinois climbed the rankings to snare the Big Ten’s sixth-rated class according to Scout, 247Sports and Rivals. Those three recruiting services also had the Illini rated at Nos. 36, 45 and 46, respectively, on a national scale.
There was another noteworthy development too, from my vantage point: a quote from a local product that stood out the most this week amid all the signing day hubbub.
After becoming one of Illinois’ late signees early on Wednesday, three-star defensive lineman prospect Jamal Milan of Chicago Al Raby was asked by the Champaign News-Gazette why he picked Illinois over Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa State.
“Why wouldn’t I want to play for my home state?” Milan told the newspaper. “That’s pretty amazing for me.”
To hear that is also pretty refreshing for Illini fans – and, surely, Tim Beckman’s coaching staff – considering how Milan’s opinion about Illinois is one that hasn’t been shared by many local prospects of late.
However, if Beckman is ever able to find true sustained success at Illinois, Milan’s sentiment is something that we’re absolutely going to need to hear a lot more often.
While this year’s 24-player Illinois class now sits impressively – and quite importantly – ahead of Big Ten West division rivals Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue, it also still only includes six Illinois natives: Chicago’s Milan, running back Dre Brown of DeKalb, quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald of Champaign Centennial, offensive lineman Gabe Megginson of Jacksonville, defensive back Patrick Nelson of Chicago Hales Franciscan and tight end Caleb Reams of Gurnee Warren.
All of Illinois’ local recruits are rated among the top 36 in state, per 247, with Megginson (No. 4), Brown (No. 14) Milan (No. 24) and Fitzgerald (No. 29) leading the way. However, that also means that nine of the state’s top 10 prospects, 18 of the top 20 and 26 of the top 30 will be playing in towns other than Champaign this fall.
As Illini football moves forward, it’s Beckman’s task to figure out how to keep more of the state’s top recruits at home. To excel, all Big Ten football programs need to supplement in-state recruiting with players from elsewhere. But if you’re not doing a good job of keeping your own best players at home, how can you realistically expect to pluck the best from other states?
This year, the consensus top two recruiting classes among the Big Ten belong to Ohio State and Penn State. And taking a look at their talent hauls, 12 of the Buckeyes’ 27 signees are from Ohio, including seven of the state’s top 10. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, have 11 Pennsylvania products among their 22 recruits, which also includes seven of that state’s top 10.
During his introductory press conference at Penn State last winter, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said that he wanted to “dominate the state” in recruiting. And after just one season on the job, he already has.
“We had seven of the top 10 players in the state of Pennsylvania, the most in more than a decade,” Franklin told reporters Wednesday. “When we got the job last year, there wasn’t one player in the top 10 players from Pennsylvania committed to Penn State — if you can imagine that — and only one in 2013.”
When talking about his own class on Wednesday, Beckman said, “We’re blessed enough to have some great players in this state, and we know how important it is for those young men to be playing on their home turf.”
It really is, and that’s the next step for Beckman to figure out.