Pick My Post - In-State Recruiting

Jul 16, 2020

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Felt like a Pick My Post night. And I'm really going to try to stick to my rule this time: wherever I am after 45 minutes, hit publish. The idea behind these isn't to research or outline what I'm going to write - it's simply have someone throw out an idea, I have 45 minutes to write about it, and then it's published on the internet forever.

Tonight's chosen question:

Great question. So many different ways to answer it.

Let's start with basketball. The whole idea about the "sleeping giant" of Illinois basketball is the fact that you can just recruit in-state kids and get to the Elite Eight. There's this massive hoops hotbed two hours north and if we tap into that like Jimmy Collins tapped into that we can get back to the 80's where we were somewhere between a 1-seed and a 5-seed for like seven consective seasons. Send the Nick Andersons and the Marcus Libertys to Champaign again and get back to the Final Four.

The issue there: the state hasn't been producing Andersons and Libertys (Liberties?) like it used to. There's been a drought of late. The years between Jalen Brunson and Ayo were perhaps the biggest in-state dip in 40+ years.

Now, the thing about dips is that they almost always even out. Adam Miller is headed to Champaign, Max Christie is a 5-star in the 2021 class, AJ Casey is probably a 5-star in the 2022 class - the state will always turn around. So yes, I think in-state is really important for basketball. I think I can say that it's not as "vital" as it used to be. I don't think there's much in-state loyalty anymore (besides annoying Iowa shooting guards going to Iowa). Recruiting is more of a national thing now than it's ever been (an international thing, really), and you can build it in-state (Miller) as well as out-of-state (Curbelo). You can build it with the best player in the state (Ayo) and you can also win by adding the best player from Jamaica (Kofi).

So that's my answer. Recruiting has changed, which means there's a better chance of getting Andre Curbelo to come to Illinois now than there was in 1991. But this is still a talent-rich state and we win when the Ayos come to Champaign.

For football, I don't think it's as important. But that doesn't mean "not important". See, oh, I don't know, the offensive line.

The 2018 running game was "fire" as the kids say. Best line play we've had in a while. Better than last year, actually. That line:

Vederian Lowe from Rockford
Kendrick Green from Peoria
Doug Kramer from Hinsdale
Nick Allegretti from Frankfort
Alex Palczewski from Mount Prospect

That's a thing that could be built upon. That's something to sell. That can be a "thing". Come to Illinois, Nick Broeker, and keep the in-state OL tradition going.

(Nick Broeker went to Ole Miss even though his brother was a walkon here and then Nick Broeker was a freshman All American last season.)

But I should probably talk about the flipside here. Football is different. I have 19 minutes left so I need to just start rambling.

I'll say it this way. Football is a sport where instinct rules the day. Basketball is mostly "skill" - Ayo has a Thing that no Illini players have had in the last decade. Recruit three great players and go win a ton of games.

For football, you're trying to build a machine. 22 moving parts on every play, best machine wins. Because of that, players with football instincts are quite valuable. Maybe they're not the most talented, but they understand the nuances of the game and will pick up your system quickly.

I'm getting at the whole "why do so many college players come from the south?" thing. A big part of that answer is the football culture - kids learning those instincts from age 7, not from age 15.

I thought of a good way to say this. The explosion of recruits from St. Louis in the last 5-8 years? I think it's directly related to the expansion of youth football in St. Louis.

Background you don't care about: Kansas City used to dominate the state playoffs. The biggest division was always won by Rockhurst (Nathan Scheelhaase) or one of the Blue Springs or Lee's Summit schools. St. Louis teams would get to the final and fall flat.

In the last five years, St. Louis is completely dominating again. Why? The explosion of youth football. A few years after that, St. Louis teams starting winning state titles and instead of one 4-star recruit in the area there were 11 4-star recruits in the area. So much of that sources to "give the kids opportunities to learn the sport at a young age".

(That's such a clumsy way to say that but I only have 9 minutes remaining on my self-imposed 45 minutes.)

In the same way that skill academies for soccer = Italy and Brazil dominating the world scene, the football scene in Texas and Florida and Georgia and California are the reason so many recruits come out of those areas. Illinois does produce it's fair share of talent, but the 174th-best player in Florida is probably always going to be better than the 10th-best player in Illinois.

And yes, every school knows that and every school recruits Florida and the pickings are slim, but the idea is that if you miss on the 4-stars (whether they're in Illinois or Louisiana), a mid three-star kid from Florida probably has a better chance of being an impact player than a similar kid from Illinois. So yes, building your team (any team) with players from the south is always smart. (And it's not even a thing in basketball.)

BUT - that doesn't mean "every player". Every school has an advantage with those in-state four-stars. "Stay home". "Be a hero around your family and friends." We don't have an ounce of that right now, and there's no way it's not hurting us. Just look at the offensive line recruiting last year. We'd be in great shape if Marcus Harper and Kevo Wesley picked Illinois. Instead, they picked Oregon and Vanderbilt. When we have OL struggles in 2023, remember those two players leaving the state. We could have built a Thing, but we just haven't done it.

TL;DR: For basketball, own the state. It's an advantage (Illinois historically produces so much talent) and we need to capitalize. For football, it's a decent but not great state. And the way recruiting works for football (find your type of player who fits your system), it's much easier to fill your spots with national recruiting.

But it's still an advantage - a foot in the door for the high-end kids - and we're nowhere close to capitalizing.


Gadwallgetter on July 16, 2020 @ 09:10 AM

Great summary Robert! In 45 minutes no less! We are living the Youth Football life as we speak with an 8 and 9 year old playing for the local travel team here in SE MO. Running the same no huddle offense as the HS team using the same signs to call in plays, running the same fundamental drills etc. it does lead to higher quality players at the HS level no doubt. Seemed crazy to me at the start but it’s pretty cool to see how fast these kids pick up on it.

NC_OrangeKrush on July 16, 2020 @ 11:40 AM

I am on old guy from Champaign, but even way back when, you knew tiny Arcola HS was going to vie for HS State Championships because of their Pee Wee football thru High School program.

Brave Illini on July 16, 2020 @ 10:15 AM

This is a really good, succinct analysis. All else equal, I like to see what Lovie has called our State Flagship University succeed in landing Illinois high school recruits. What I wonder is how hard the staff has been going after the in-state football recruits the last couple years. I don't seem to hear much about that.

Robert on July 16, 2020 @ 11:18 AM

To me - and this isn't inside info or anything, just my observation - it seems as though they put less and less effort into the state each year. The less it has yielded results, the more they look elsewhere.

Not the approach I would give my sales team ("everyone in this state loves the big box stores - let's barely try with them and concentrate our sales out of state"), but that seems to be the approach.

Robert on July 16, 2020 @ 11:40 AM

And right on cue, The Athletic releases their State of the Program article for Illinois with a direct quote from Lovie on this topic. You have to subscribe to read the article (here's a link), but I'll cut-and-paste a snippet. When asked about in-state recruiting, this was Lovie's response:

“This is how we look at it: I think what people should want is for the University of Illinois to have players we feel like we can win with,” Smith said. “We offered scholarships to 18 to 21 players in the state of Illinois last year and they chose to go somewhere else, for whatever reason. So it’s not like we’re not recruiting the state. We’re recruiting the state hard. But if players here choose to go elsewhere, we have to go elsewhere. It’s kind of as simple as that. Everyone should get the perfect place for everyone. Until we start winning consistently, we’re not gonna get all those top players in our state.

“But there are other areas where we can get good football players, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re not getting a lesser athlete. We’re gonna go where we need to go to get football players. We would like for more athletes from our home state to come to the flagship university of Illinois, but right now that’s not happening, and we’ll just keep working on it.”

IBFan on July 16, 2020 @ 12:38 PM

Thanks Robert. Unfortunately too many kids, including non athletes just want to go out of state, for any reason. The state of our state is somewhere between comical and utterly pathetic. The parents of these kids don’t want to be here. It’s so bad there actually has been some tectonics at play as farmland has actually been moving into Missouri and Indiana. Thanks for the Lovie snippet. Hopefully we have some good seasons and Champaign will become a “cool” destination.

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