2017 Signing Day Breakdown

Feb 01, 2017

Because my very first post on alioneye.com was the 2009 Signing Day Breakdown, I always begin this post with the number of years I've been blogging. So if you'll excuse me for a moment... 8 YEARS! EIGHT!! That's insane.

I usually follow that up with a statement on what I've seen over those eight years. It gets more depressing every year. Since the first Wednesday in February of 2009, the highlights have been.. two NCAA Tournament wins in the first round (2011 over UNLV, 2013 over Colorado) and three 6-6 football seasons (2010, 2011, and 2014). That's it.

And yes, that's the worst such record of any Power Five school. There are 65 P5 schools, and 64 of them have had more to cheer about. It's so incredibly exasperating to be an Illini fan these last eight years.

But wait! What's that I see in the distance? Is it... HOPE? Is it... LOVIE SMITH?

I think that's what makes today so important. Today, after EIGHT YEARS, I am writing post with legitimate hopes for the future. Not wish-and-a-prayer hopes, but legitimate, I-think-we-can-trust-in-this hopes. This coaching staff, bringing in these players, can win. Will win.

It won't be immediate. A lot of these players are going to play next season. You will hear "youngest team in college football" about 400 times. This is really just the first step in the rebuild.

But it is nearly exactly what I was hoping for. I set the goal at the #40 class; as of right now, this class ranks #43 on 247 Composite. We clipped the bar with our heel as we tried to clear it, but that's OK. Great jump.

And, since I do my own ratings, I do think this class is slightly underrated. I believe some of these lower-ranked guys are really good. A guy like Mike Epstein has a Michigan offer, we have to hold off UCLA and Utah late, he's player of the year in Broward County (which has about 250 Division I football players), and he's a low three-star? Come on now.

So to me, we hit the target. As you know, I was frightened that we wouldn't. At the end of July our class ranked 79th nationally (79th!) and well over half of all the players had already committed. I was losing sleep. But then Lovie and staff slowly and methodically (where have we heard that before) assembled the players they needed at the positions they needed. By the weekend of December 10th - perhaps our best official visit weekend in 10+ years - we had climbed all the way back to where we needed to be.

Let's begin with a visual comparison of this class to last year's class. Using the specific 247 Composite Score for each individual player, which combines the ratings from Rivals, Scout, ESPN, and 247, here's this year's class (in bold) vs. Cubit's class.

Ricky Smalling .8868
Kendrick Green .8801
Delshawn Phillips .8737
Larry Boyd .8721
Kendrick Green .8718
Carmoni Green .8680

Zarrian Holcombe .8559
Dele Harding .8549
Olalere Oladipo .8512
Dwayne Lawson .8496
Tony Adams .8472
Kendall Smith .8443
Louis Dorsey .8442

Tre Nation .8422
Mike Epstein .8421
Howard Watkins .8421
Deon Pate .8366
Vederian Lowe .8365
Cameron Thomas .8356
Kenyon Jackson .8335
Tymir Oliver .8321
Alex Palczewski .8319
Kurt Gavin .8319
Ra'Von Bonner .8315
Jacob Cerny .8292
Marc Mondesir .8247
Andrew Trainer .8240
James Knight .8239
Bennett Williams .8222

Darta Lee .8209
Dawson DeGroot .8204
Eddy Fish .8171
Dominic Thieman .8114
Christion Abercrombie .8113
Brandon Jones .8081
James McCourt .8068
Jake Hansen .8035
Doug Kramer .8031
Jamal Woods .8005
Stanley Green .7983
Nate Hobbs .7977
Griffin Palmer .7965
MJ McGriff .7850
Harvey Clayton .7824
Evan Jones .7783
Ayo Shogbonyo .7750
Ahmari Hayes .7700

Now, there appeared to be a little grade exagerration going on this year compared to last year. Each year, the number of three-stars goes up and up. But still, this is a significant step forward from last year. I think I could even call it a huge leap. If you look at the top 20 guys on that list, SIXTEEN are from this class and four from the last class. That's a giant leap for mankind.

Steve already covered where this fits in nationally (and in the Big Ten), so I don't have to talk about that, but just know that this class gets us to a level where we can compete in the Big Ten West. That's the immediate goal. When we step out on the field against Iowa or Wisconsin, have equal or better talent so that it's not a "we need three turnovers if we're going to win this one" kind of thing. You know, like the last 25 year.

This is step one to getting there. And, I hope, Lovie's worst class of the next 10 years. I really do think #43 can be our floor. He did this while selling a 3-9 season and I believe he can push into the 30's or 20's if he's selling even a 7-5 season. 9-3, watch out.

OK, let's get to the players. I used to do these categories (players I'm excited about, sure bet to get on the field early, players I don't know that much about), but I've watched way too much film to have a "players I don't know much about" category. So let's set up some different categories.

The Big Seven

Looking at this class I see seven high-impact recruits. If I was doing this category last year, I'm not sure I could have added anyone. Holcombe and Harding were borderline high-impact (and I think both will be really good for us), and I loved Dom Thieman and Stanley Green, but there really wasn't a set of high-level players like this class. Here are the Big Seven, including my personal, state-of-the-art Tom Cruise rating (between 0.5 to 5.0):

Owen Carney
Defensive End
Miami Central High School - Miami, Florida
4.25 Tom Cruises

He's my #1 guy in this class. We graduated five defensive linemen, we had to land someone who could play right away, and not only did we somehow hold off Florida State to land him, he's also an early enrollee. Which means he'll go through spring ball and get a jump on everyone else.

There's a reason he had Florida State/Georgia/LSU/Miami offers. He's really, really good at the game of football. It will take a bit, of course - it's very rare for a DE to be ready as a true freshman - but defensive end was our number one priority and we landed our number one target.

Ricky Smalling
Wide Receiver
Marist High School - Chicago, Illinois
4 Tom Cruises

The other priority in this class - wide receiver. And hey, look at that, we landed our #1 target there as well. Smalling is the type of receiver that McGee wants for his offense. Shorter, quicker guys who can cut on a dime. I think the best comp for Smalling is probably AJ Jenkins. Has that same fluid running motion.

I'm thinking he plays immediately. Malik Turner and a (hopefully healthy) Dude K will be #1 and #2, obviously, but I could see Smalling moving up to the #3 target by year's end. And, once Turner and Dudek are gone, he's probably the main guy. Great get.

Larry Boyd
Offensive Lineman
Trinity High School - St. Louis, Missouri
4 Tom Cruises

THIS IS SO MUCH MORE FUN THAN LAST YEAR. Last year I wrote that "Misfits" post, talking about how the recruiting class, complete with a kicker who has an Irish accent, was the cast of a football movie. But the breakdown was difficult because so many players fit into the "project recruit" box. This year, there are so many high-end targets.

Like Larry Boyd. I really do think he can start at guard next season. That's probably a little Kool-Aid, but he has legit Big Ten size and strength right now. If he's the future of the offensive line, let's get the future to start ASAP.

Olalere Oladipo
Defensive End
Huntley High School - Huntley, Illinois
4 Tom Cruises

He's kind of the forgotten man in this class. Key target, somehow held off Michigan State and Penn State, and yet he verballed in August so all we seem to talk about are the December/January guys. But think about this: he visited Michigan State in the spring, got an offer, I winced every time he tweeted something because I was sure it was going to be an MSU commitment... but he didn't. And then he visited Penn State and I did the same... but he didn't verbal. And then he verballed to Lovie.

But it wasn't over. He visited Penn State this fall for an official visit. And I went back to wincing. And he never flipped. Penn State? No. Michigan State? No. Illinois? Yes. Pair him with Carney and we have our defensive ends for the Michigan game in 2019.

Kendrick Green
Defensive Tackle
Peoria High School - Peoria, Illinois
3.75 Tom Cruises

This one was a senior blow-up. His first Power Five offer came from Minnesota in June. Then he had an outstanding senior season (leading Peoria to a state title), and everyone got involved with offers from Iowa, Missouri, and even Notre Dame. His choice? Lovie Smith and Illinois.

We didn't just lose defensive ends in this senior class - we lost defensive tackles, too. So replacing them with a guy like Kendrick Green was vital. While Carney and Oladipo will play right away, there's a chance, given our depth, that Green might redshirt. But he's going to be hard to keep off the field.

Del'Shawn Phillips
Garden City Community College - Garden City, Kansas
3.75 Tom Cruises

That December official visit weekend should be the stuff of legend in a few years. Carney said yes, both Greens said yes, and Del'Shawn Phillips said yes. Phillips is a junior college linebacker from Kansas (originally from Detroit) who was committed to Arizona for a long time. All the way up until Juco early signing day in December when he flipped to Illinois.

For next year, I'm plugging him in to the starting lineup next to Tre Watson. Basically giving him Hardy Nickerson's spot. That's ambitious, sure, and there will be a few sophomores and juniors who might have something to say about that, but I really think he's good enough to plug and play. One of the top Juco linebackers in the country.

Carmoni Green
Wide Receiver
Miami Central High School - Miami, Floria
3.5 Tom Cruises

The last of The Big Seven is Carney's high school teammate, Carmoni Green. I could basically cut and paste what I said above about Smalling. We need receivers, some of these freshmen are going to play right away, and Green is good enough to do just that. The added bonus: he also enrolled early, so he'll get a jump on Smalling.

He was yet another hold-off in this class - North Carolina tried to flip him in December. But as Lovie and staff showed time and again with this class, they're willing to go into that foxhole and win.

The Solid Core

Mike Epstein
Running Back
St. Thomas Aquinas High School - Fort Lauderdale, Florida
3.25 Tom Cruises

I'll speak more about him below because he's going to win a certain award that I give out every year (SPOILER ALERT). For now I'll just say that we landed a running back with legit offers from Michigan, Louisville, Utah, and others. He had a breakout senior year (after missing his junior year with a knee injury) and proved to be as committed to Illinois as any player in recent memory. He committed under Tim Beckman... and then re-committed to Bill Cubit... and the re-committed to Lovie Smith. Bleeds orange and blue already, apparently.

Bobby Roundtree
Defensive End
Largo High School - Largo, Florida
3.25 Tom Cruises

There's no better feeling while composing the signing day post than having to go back up and enter another player because we (surprisingly) pulled in another verbal. Roundtree had Michigan State, Virginia Tech, and NC State after him, settled on a final two of Illinois and Indiana, was supposed to pick Indiana (after we landed four other defensive ends)... and somehow just picked Illinois. I'd hate to see the Indiana war room right now. This was their #1 DE target (and our #3), and we just drank their milkshake

I think he's really good. Steve had him as our #2 target in December (after Carney), so this is a really big get. Long, lanky athlete that Lovie can mold into a pass rushing machine. Really, with our DE situation, landing Oladipo, Carney, and Roundtree was pretty much an A. Incredible that we pulled all three.

Tony Adams
St. Louis University High School - St. Louis, Missouri
3 Tom Cruises

I went to see Adams play this fall (before his knee injury) and was impressed. He even pulled in a one-handed interception. Because he knew I was there, obviously. He's a really fluid athlete - never really came off the field for SLUH, playing WR, DB, and kick returner - and that's the kind of athlete Lovie can mold into a Big Ten cornerback. It might take a bit (his ACL surgery was in October, so I could see a redshirt year for him), but this is the kind of kid Lovie loves. An athlete to mold.

Vederian Lowe
Offensive Lineman
Auburn High School - Rockford, Illinois
3 Tom Cruises

He's just a giant human person. In some pictures, I swear he's 375 lbs. Which means that I'm putting Lowe on the redshirt list. Take this giant human person, put him in the strength program, and mold him into the kind of player Lovie wants to see on the OL (which, apparently, is massive linemen, given the guys he recruited in this class).

Louis Dorsey
Tight End
Jean Ribault High School - Jacksonville, Florida
3 Tom Cruises

Needed a tight end in this class (needed two, really), so landing Dorsey was big. It feels like we've crossed the redshirt line here, where every player below will likely redshirt. We might need Dorsey next year (depends on the readiness of redshirt freshmen Andrew Trainer and Griffin Palmer, plus sophomore Zarrian Holcombe), but if not, redshirt him and teach him the transition between high school wide receiver and college tight end. Translation: learn how to block.

Alex Palczewski
Offensive Lineman
Prospect High School - Mount Prospect, Illinois
3 Tom Cruises

It's nice the Dorsey and Palczeweski are paired here because they A) visited the same weekend and B) were both "we're down to one recruit at this spot so we pretty much have to land them". Palczewski, like Epstein, didn't pay his junior year because of a neck injury. But he blew up as a senior, got offers from Illinois, Syracuse, and Vandy, and picked Illinois. The other linemen in this class are guard types and Palczewski is a tackle type, so he was a great late pull. Had to have a tackle.

Nice Finds

Dawson DeGroot
Fort Meyers High School - Fort Meyers, Florida
2.5 Tom Cruises

I just wrote about him last night, but to recap, I love this pick-up. When I watch film of defensive players, yes, you have to look at size and speed. But I also look for aggressiveness, and DeGroot has it in spades. I think they use him as a "downhill safety" - coming up in run support as often as possible.

Kendall Smith
Wide Receiver
Bolingbrook High School - Bolingbrook, Illinois
2.5 Tom Cruises

He missed being the first recruit in the class by about 10 minutes. He and Ricky Smalling both visited together in April and verballed together. But Smalling got his tweet up first, so he gets to be "the first recruit of the Lovie Smith era". Smith was rumored to maybe be a defensive back recruit, but with adding some defensive backs late in January, it looks like Smith stays at wide receiver.

Nate Hobbs
Defensive Back
Male High School - Louisville, Kentucky
2.5 Tom Cruises

More than anything I like him as a returner. We'll find a spot for him (likely cornerback), and he'll probably get in the rotation there, but watching his film, my first reaction is that he has a chance to be our returner, maybe even this season. So maybe we haven't reached the "redshirt line" yet.

Hojo Watkins
Offensive Lineman
Colrain High School - Cincinnati, Ohio
2 Tom Cruises

Speaking of redshirts, I think Watkins is a clear redshirt candidate. Boyd is probably ready to play right away, and Lowe has the size already, so they might be the guys to find the depth chart. Watkins, I think, is more on the five-year plan (which is pretty much the plan that every school uses for every offensive line recruit). Get him into the strength program ASAP and teach him technique.

Ra'Von Bonner
Running Back
Sycamore High School - Cincinnati, Ohio
2 Tom Cruises

I'm not as high on Bonner as others. Still a solid get, and it was good to see Iowa take a run at him (and, possibly, if the rumors are true, Ohio State), but I have in my head that this staff is more looking for quick backs (like Epstein) than power backs (like Bonner). Hey, look at me, I'm quibbling over whether we should offer a power back with an Iowa offer. A year after the majority of recruits didn't have any Power Five offers at all.

Deon Pate
Defensive Lineman
Trinity Christian Academy - Jacksonville, Florida
2 Tom Cruises

Another guy I just wrote about last night. I think with the Roundtree commitment, Pate will clearly be a defensive tackle. Which makes for a really great defensive line class. Carney, Oladipo, Roundtree, and Woods at end and then Green and Pate at tackle. Get these guys into the Mike Phair defensive line system and in a few years, baby, you've got a stew goin'.


Cameron Thomas
Marian Catholic High School - Chicago, Illinois
2 Tom Cruises

It's hard to evaluate a QB who has high school stats like "3-7 for 31 yards" playing on a really bad team. High school stats don't mean much, especially for a QB (there are tons of high school QB's who throw for 3,000 yards but have no chance of playing in college because of measurables). But it should probably be a concern that Thomas' stats were so low. Either way, our coaches went to see him throw, like him, offered him, and landed him. He's the QB they wanted in this class.

James Knight
East St. Louis Senior High School - East St. Louis, Illinois
2 Tom Cruises

Jimmy Jam! As I wrote in his LLUOI post, the good news: he flies around with abandon and hits as hard as any recruit I've watched this year. The bad news: he's probably around 5'-8", and I'm not sure where you play a guy like that. Prove me wrong, Jimmy Jam.

Marc Mondesir
St. Rita High School - Chicago, Illinois
1.5 Tom Cruises

Mondesir was a camp offer (like Tony Adams). Lovie held a satellite camp in Chicago, spotted Mondesir, offered on the spot. He's probably the most raw of any player in this class, which means he probably has the farthest distance to travel between "verbal" and "starter". But every class needs guys like that. System guys you can train for five years.

Jamal Woods
Defensive Lineman
Hueytown High School - Hueytown, Alabama
1.5 Tom Cruises

Woods was a signing day flip from Memphis. He's from Alabama (Garrick McGee territory), verballed to Memphis this summer, caught the eye of our staff this fall, got the offer, visited last weekend, and flipped on signing day. He's very raw - probably the most raw of all the defensive line signees. So I think he's a certain redshirt. But we needed depth, so we flipped him.

Bennett Williams
Defensive Back
St. Francis Central Coast Catholic High School - Watsonville, California
1.5 Tom Cruises

Another player I wrote about last night. I see the road between "signed with Illinois" and "starter for Illinois" as a long one for Bennett. (I keep calling him Bennett. His last name is Williams.) He's a bit of a reach recruit, I think. But after a class of 12 "reaches" last year, I think this is the first time I've used the term today. That's a good thing. (Now prove me wrong, Williams.)

In Conclusion

OK, there's only one thing left to get to: the Asamoah Award. Since 2006 (first on the old IlliniBoard football message board, then on alioneye.com, now on IlliniBoard), I've given out the Asamoah Award. In 2006 I basically said "this Jon Asamoah guy is like 10 times better than he's rated", so the next year I picked another guy rated too low and said the same thing. Here's the list over the years:

2006: Jon Asamoah
2007: Ian Thomas
2008: Ugo Uzodinma (transferred to New Mexico)
2009: Walt Aikens
2010: Jay Prosch
2011: Jeremey Whitlow (whiffed on that one)
2012: V'Angelo Bentley
2013: Marchie Murdock (transferred to Iowa State)
2014: Tito Odenigbo
2015: Caleb Reams
2016: Dominic Thieman

The 2017 pick is easy: Mike Epstein. 247 recently bumped his ranking a little bit (they had him as a ridiculously low 2-star), but he's still not rated in the top-1000 players nationally. That's insane to me.

Michigan offered. Louisville offered. Both Utah and UCLA tried to get him to visit these last two weeks. The Miami newpaper picked him as the player of the year (skipping over maybe 100 five-stars and four-stars). There was even an article from some south Florida recruiting guru (I can't seem to find it right now) stating that of all the players he'd seen this fall, Epstein might be the best.

I get why the rankings were low: no junior tape. He tore his ACL in the summer of 2015 and missed the entire 2015 season. But he was so good this fall, and he had the offers, and... still a low-end three-star. Ridiculous. The Asamoah Award easily goes to him.

OK, so this was step one. Of maybe a dozen steps. Lovie needs to find the players who fit his systems and then train them on how to run it. Next year, you will see a lot of these players on the field, and many of them will look lost. That's just how it goes when you play true freshmen.

But the goal isn't next year. The goal isn't even the year after that, really. The goal is a sustainable, winning football program at the University of Illinois.

And we just took a big step towards that today.


Douglascountyillinifan on February 01 @ 08:26 AM CST

Fantastic work! Absolutely love it. Hobbs might be up for Asamoah consideration before it's all said and done. I think he's going to be a good un. Smalling goes to Brother Rice, by the way. Those Catholics, can't tell one from another. :-)

Illinifan69 on February 01 @ 09:15 AM CST

Hey Robert. Slight correction. Mike Epstein was the Ft. Lauderdale(Broward County) Sun-Sentinel's player of the year(not Miami Herald). Everything else is correct. As you said he beat out a large number of 4 and 5 star players for that honor. Huge, huge honor. Will take all of the St. Thomas Aquinas players that we can get. Can't wait to see him play.

Groundhogday on February 04 @ 02:15 PM CST

I'd put Epstein in the first category. Early commitment to Illinois hurt his rating, but guy is GOOD.

CAIllini on February 01 @ 09:44 AM CST

It would be nice if you could also highlight some of the recruiting battles we lost which stung the most as I haven't followed it day to day. Any big fish get away?

HiggsBoson on February 01 @ 11:11 AM CST

What happened with Lawson, the JC quarterback? All Ive seen elsewhere is a statement that we wouldn't announce him on NSD.

Robert on February 01 @ 11:17 AM CST

He still has work to do - both in the spring semester and the summer - if he wants to gain admission to Illinois.

My guess: his December grades came out, he wasn't on track to get admitted in June, so he didn't sign and now has the spring and summer to fix it or he won't play D-I college football.

lumpyillini on February 01 @ 03:29 PM CST

Weren't Holcombe and Harding in last year's class? And maybe I missed it, but what do the asterisks denote?

Robert on February 01 @ 04:20 PM CST

Yes. There's something funky going on with the formatting. It was fine earlier, but we made some adjustments to the page and all those italics and asterisks showed up. And the best part - there's currently a bug and I can't edit posts without Brumby's assistance.

So... bear with us. Some kinks we need to work out.

(And yes - Harding, Holcombe, Gavin, and Cerny should not be bold.)

IlliniDan on February 02 @ 05:17 AM CST

When you said James Knight was 5'8", I had to take a look. He's listed at 6'0 and 210lbs on 247.

Groundhogday on February 02 @ 11:03 AM CST

Overall, I agree with most of Robert's classification, but...

I actually like Bennett Williams as a free safety. Not as a star, but seems to be a really bright kid who could be one of those QB for the defense types.

And I think more of Jamal Woods than Robert. Seem to be a really tough kid who plays with good agility. I like him more than Pate - who is bigger but doesn't seem to play really tough for a guy who probably needs to move inside. But... We'll see!

Roundtree might belong in the top category.

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