Bret Bielema called a half-dozen Illinois high school football coaches from his New Jersey hotel room the day he was hired as the new Illinois football coach last December. Both Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and deputy athletic director Warren Hood suggested that particular course of action during early conversations with Bielema.
Repairing the relationship between the Illini and high school football programs across the state was seen as a priority. Lovie Smith signed 10 players from Illinois in his first full recruiting class in 2017, including Pittsburgh Steelers center Kendrick Green. Then, the former Illinois coach signed just 12 in-state prospects from 2018-2021, including zero in the Class of 2020.
Those first-day phone calls from Bielema to high school coaches across the state weren’t just perfunctory. Bielema and the Illinois coaching staff made in-state recruiting a priority. During his introductory presser, Bielema said the following on keeping Illinois recruits in-state: “I don’t care what size school, location, those schools will have the opportunity to be in contact with me and my staff. Anybody who believes that they have a player that wants to be a part of Illinois to win a Big Ten Championship or national championship, we want them. If we are built with the DNA and a structure from the state of Illinois, then we have a great chance to be successful.”
Coaches in the Chicago area have said that since Bielema has taken over, no school has been in their offices , or calling them more, that the Illini staff.
Bielema is an Illinois native and, in his first recruiting cycle, the 2022 class, he has prioritized in-state talent. “I really believe this,” Bielema said. “For Illinois to be like they’ve never been in the past, they have to recruit the state of Illinois better than they have in the past.” So far, they have. In their 2022 class, eight of the Illini’s 15 commits are in-state, making up 53% of the group. #Illini football would love for Jalil Martin and Jimmy Rolder to be the 9th and 10th in-state commitment in their Class of 2022.
In-state recruiting is a must for the Illinois football program, and you can tell that already with the 2023 and 2024 classes. Illinois getting after young in-state kids, the staff have offered 13 scholarship to prospects that live in Illinois or have ties to Illinois. In the Class of 2023, the offers are to the following players: Carnell Tate, Malik Elzy, Charles Jagusah, Austin Barrett, Jyaire Hill, Kaden Feagin, Roderick Pierce, and Brooks Bahr. While for the Class of 2024, the offers are to Cam Williams, Grant Stec, Mario Buford, Tysean Griffin, and Justin Scott. I am expecting Illinois to offer more in-state prospects in the future.
One school in particular that had previously taken advantage of Illinois’ lack of in-state focus was Iowa. However, so far in this cycle, Bielema has won head-to-head recruiting battles against his alma mater. Bielema previously said the following: “I talked to the Illinois Highway Department. [Recruits] will not be able to leave the state anymore.” In addition to the home state, though, Bielema is looking to return the favor to programs like Iowa and cross state borders on the recruiting trail.
“For us to be successful at Illinois, we have to recruit in the state,” Bielema said. “But we also, the states that border us, right, so they come in our state, so we can go into theirs as well. A kid that grows up in down-state Illinois is very similar to a kid that grows up in the middle of Iowa, the kid that grows up in the middle of Wisconsin, the kid that grows up in the middle of Ohio, all those things transcend to what we think we can bring here, right? So, it’s an exciting time.”
And if Illinois loses the recruiting battle on signing day, Bielema has a plan in place for later on. “Within our personnel department, I have a traditional high school wing,” Bielema said. “As soon as a player signs, even the ones we didn’t get last year, we already have a file working on anyone from the state of Illinois that signed with another institution. We’re going to track their careers because, at some point, all of a sudden they raise their hand and say, ‘I’m in the transfer portal and I want to come home.’ Then we want to be there.” The priority right for Illinois and Bielema is to lay the foundation for a winning culture.