No, Really - 2018 Recruiting Class Breakdown

May 19, 2018

I've been kind of... saving this? As I've discussed way too much, a project at work (which wrapped up May 4th) took all of my time this spring. So the breakdown of the football signing class was put on hold. This week, I had this little minor surgery on Tuesday, so with a few days off to recoup, why not knock out the post from the first week of February... on May 18th?

Besides, isn't it kind of BETTER to do a post like this right when the players are getting ready to arrive on campus in a few weeks? Maybe this should become a tradition? No, no it shouldn't. And it won't. But for this year, that's the way it had to go.

I did write out a few thoughts on Signing Day. That was the first "half" of this (usually very long) post. But I never took the time to go through every player, give out my thoughts on how we met our needs, and hand out my yearly Asamoah Award. So I'm doing this tonight. Probably gonna start a fight.

First off, it was a step back from the previous class. I covered that in the other post I just linked (Lovie had said the 2018 class would be better than his 2017 class, and the 2017 class ranked 46th, and this class... ranked 55th.

That's just the composite rankings though. As far as my thoughts go... the separation is a little worse. Sorry. The 2017 class was ranked 46th, and I thought that was too low. There were a lot of hidden gems in that class, in my opinion. And I think we saw that last fall on the field. The 2018 class is ranked 55th, and I think that's a little high. It's not a rebuild killer, but it doesn't get us to where we need to be.

I guess I have numbers to back that up as well. I do my own "Tom Cruise" rating, and this class was a significant drop-off. The 2017 class averaged 2.82 Cruises. This class averaged 2.54 Cruises. That might not seem like much, but it is. I rated seven players in the 2017 class as 3.5 Cruises and above. In this class, only three. That's a significant step back in "instant impact" players. Lovie got close on several - Ayodele Adeoye, Merlin Robertson, etc - but just couldn't land them in the end.

What does that mean? Well, we'll get into that in a bit, but for now, just know that I'm hesitating a little more around my October 12, 2019 "we're back" moment. Specifically, we needed to land the quarterback and middle linebacker who will star in that game, and I'm not sure we did? Which means they'll have to be freshmen. Which means... I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go though my typical categories and then we can talk about what it all means.

The Big Two

This was The Big Seven last year, but this year it's just two players clearly ahead of the rest of the pack. Negative Norm: two is a lot less than seven. Positive Polly: both of these players are way better than anyone we landed in the 2017 class.

Calvin Avery
Defensive Tackle
Bishop Dunne High School - Dallas, Texas
4.5 Tom Cruises

I'm going to go through player-by-player and write the first thing that comes into my head. The Recruiting Class Breakdown isn't a reasearch project; it's a stream of consciousness.

Calvin Avery is, quite simply, the best player Lovie has landed in his first two years. It appears that I will be writing about two - perhaps seven - players even better than him in the 2019 class. But when we're looking at 2017 and 2018, he's the cream of the crop.

Why? Because he's bigger and stronger and faster. There are players we've recruiting in the past who have developed into starts. Whitney Mercilus was a fairly unhearlded recruit who was mostly unknown his first two years on campus but he worked and he worked and he left as a first-team All American. Corey Liuget was the guy who was known the moment he stepped on campus and was clearly bigger/stronger/faster. Avery is more or a Liuget. From the first day he sets foot on campus, his combination of big/strong/fast is likely unmatched on the roster. He plays early (and plays a lot).

Verdis Brown
Defensive Tackle/Offensive Guard
IMG Academy - originally from Chicago, Illinois
4.25 Tom Cruises

Brown is in a similar category. If you're 6'-3" and 300 lbs, you shouldn't be able to move like that. Brown reminds me of Josh Brent (defensive tackle from 2007-2009) - incredibly agile for a guy his size.

The question for Brown is where he fits in. Lovie has said they will start him out at defensive tackle. Is that where he stays? Does he eventually move back over to offensive line? My guess is that you might see the Kendrick Green path here. While he figures out where he's going to play, he redshirts his first season.

The Solid Core

Sydney Brown
St. Stephens Episcopal School - Bradenton, Florida
3.5 Tom Cruises

There's always a player in each class who I overrate because of their film. "Overrate" sounds bad. "Get a little too excited about". We'll call it Chandler Whitmer's Arm. I didn't care about anything else in the spring of 2010 besides Chandler Whitmer's ability to zip a tight spiral. All of the other things that you look for in a quarterback? I didn't look. It was just LOOK AT THAT ARM.

With Sydney Brown, it's LOOK AT THAT TACKLING. Lovie wants safeties who fly around and don't care, and Sydney Brown, on film, flies around and doesn't care. "Fly around and don't care" does not mean "get a bunch of targeting penalties like Stanley Green". You have to care a little bit. But Lovie wants safeties who will make the stop and occasionally jar the ball loose, and Brown appears to be that kind of safety. Which is why I rank him with the third-highest Cruises of anyone in the class.

Kievan Myers
Offensive Lineman
Bishop Dunne High School - Dallas, Texas
3 Tom Cruises

What does Lovie want from his offensive linemen? Well, Larry Boyd is 340 lbs, and Vederian Lowe is 340 lbs, and Kievan Myers is at least 330 lbs (if not 345 by now). This is the kind of lineman he's looking for.

The 2018 season will be all about building depth for Lovie. And getting a guy like Myers ready to possibly play right away will be huge. Last season, there were six offensive linemen he trusted. The goal this season: nine or ten offensive linemen he trusts. Hopefully Myers is ready to be that guy from the moment he steps on campus.

Daniel Barker
Tight End
Deerfield Beach High School - Deerfield Beach, Florida
3 Tom Cruises

Barker is kind of the forgotten guy in this class (at least to me). Illinois and Pitt offered him this time last year, and then I thought Illinois was going to lose him when Kentucky offered at their camp in June. But he looked at all three schools and settled on Illinois.

He's a shorter guy for a tight end (as in, 6'-3"-ish, not 6'-7"-ish like Louis Dorsey). And that might be good for this scheme change. Rod Smith is looking for guys to fill that H-Back spot in the new offense, and I think he's going to be excited about Barker.

Jartavius Martin
Defensive Back
Lehigh Senior High School - Lehigh Acres, Florida
3 Tom Cruises

This is my guy. He just might earn a certain award that I hand out at the end of these Signing Class Breakdown posts, so there's a chance I'm discussing him more later. He's not the highest ranked guy, and our only real competition for him was Iowa State and Air Force, but this is my guy. Projects as a safety, but I want him as a cornerback. I think he's that perfect lanky, long, and lean cornerback for Lovie's defense. (Or safety.)

Delano Ware
El Cerrito High School - El Cerrito, California
3 Tom Cruises

Big hitter, Delano.

(That's really good and I'm just going to leave it at that.)

Ezekiel Holmes
Defensive End
Hirschi High School - Wichita Falls, Texas
3 Tom Cruises

Holmes was the sleeper of this class. It's a week before signing day and we'd never even heard his name and then suddenly we're battling with Washington State for an unknown defensive end from Texas. Reminds me of Isaiah Gay in that way - 11th hour and we learn the name of a player who had a breakout senior season and started to get multiple offers. For Gay it was East Carolina and (rumored to be) North Carolina. For Holmes it was Washington State, Air Force, and (rumored to be) Oklahoma State.

Really good film, too. If there's one thing I've gained confidence in with this staff, it's spotting defensive line talent. They earned our trust with the 2017 class.

Nice Finds

I'm putting the rest in two categories - Nice Finds and Projects. You will note that there are a lot of projects. That's because I think this class is a little too heavy on projects. I thought about moving a few of these guys above the "projects" line, but this is a gut feel post, and my gut tells me I cannot do that.

Dylan Wyatt
Defensive Back
St. Mary's College HS - Albany, California
2.5 Tom Cruises

If Holmes was the sleeper of the class, Wyatt was the biggest surprise. He played at a lower level of football in California (and, if I learned much about it, that might eliminate any excitement I had about how he dominated the competition), but he was really solid on film. I made that mistake with Bennett Williams ("film looks great but he has no P5 offers so the film probably just looks good because there's no competition"). That was a big old FAIL (Williams is likely future all-conference and possibly future All American), so I'm being more careful with Wyatt. He may have played for a college prep high school with a tiny football program just outside Berkeley, but he dominated that film and we might have found a diamond in the fluff.

(I'm seriously on a roll here.)

Khalan Tolson
Farragut Academy - Saint Petersburg, Florida
2.5 Tom Cruises

He has to be good. This is not a Smuckers thing - he simply has to be good. Our biggest whiffs in this class were linebacker targets, and since we missed on those, we shall turn to the ones we did land and say "get ready kid - you're going to play early and often". At linebacker we have the one juco who is now a senior (Phillips), the two kids from the Cubit class (Hansen and Harding), and then a bunch of unknowns and walkons. The door is wide open for returnees like James Knight and Marc Mondesir (or recruits like Tolson) to maybe even grab a starting spot.

Jordyn Slaughter
Offensive Lineman
Althoff Catholic High School - Belleville, Illinois
2.5 Tom Cruises

Man, I forget how long this post can get. I started out thinking I could knock it out by Friday but it's now Friday night, my body is having some, um, issues with the surgery, and I'm probably going to be up all night. Perhaps I'll be able to post this by mid-July.

Slaughter was a camp offer (we offered him at one of our June camps last summer), and I think it's as simple as offering body type. He's yet another massive dude who is already 300 lbs and can likely play at 325 or so. That's what they want across the entire line, so that's what they're recruiting. Land massive dudes who are agile, teach them to play football.

Ron Hardge III
Defensive Back
Cardinal Gibbons High School - Fort Lauderdale, Florida
2.5 Tom Cruises

I felt like Hardge was a little underrated by the scouting services. Had offers from Mississippi State, Pitt, and NC State. Film looks pretty good. Solid athlete from a solid high school program.

I'm just not sure where he ends up in the defensive backfield. Is he a safety or a cornerback? We added about five or six of those guys in this class (safety or cornerback?), so I'm guessing it takes us at least a year to sort it all out. Some of them - maybe even Hardge - could end up at wide receiver.

Kenyon Sims
Running Back
Mission Bay High School - San Diego, California
2.5 Tom Cruises

Sims was the first player hand-selected by Rod Smith for his offense. Smith got the OC job and immediately added a tailback and a quarterback (Robinson) from southern California who fit what he wants to do. Sims was originally headed to Utah, but after decommitting from there he landed the Illinois offer and ended up heading to the midwest. Soild film, obviously fits what Smith wants to do, solid late pick-up.

Coran Taylor
Peoria High School - Peoria, Illinois
2.5 Tom Cruises

He's probably the enigma of the entire class, right? Committed early before any other offers came along, so we don't really know what kind of national interest he would have gathered. Was rumored to be an academic question mark (which is apparently why he didn't sign in December and instead waited until February), which might have scared some teams off as well. But, given his performance leading his team to the state title as a junior, might be one of the better dual-threat QB's from the state in the last five years. Makes plays on film that other guys just can't make. Certainly has the athleticism (to the point where if QB doesn't work out, another position will). Still... an enigma until we see him on campus, in uniform, learning the offense.

Carlos Sandy
Wide Receiver
Cardinal Gibbons High School - Fort Lauderdale, Florida
2.5 Tom Cruises

Sandy was added for speed. He has it, we need it. Likely at wide receiver. Once Mikey Dudek graduates we're going to need some speed in the slot, and I think Sandy will be slotted to do just that.

He's right on the line with the project recruits, though. He's a fast guy who plays football, but he needs to be a footwork guy and a hands guy and all of the other things that makes a college receiver successful. So I have him above the line here - speed - but just barely.


Unfortunately, I have 9 of the 24 players in this class below this line. And several others, as I just mentioned, are right on this line. This class was close to getting there - just remove three guys from this list and add guys like Adeoye and Robertson to the top list - and it would have been there. But it fell short.

Nick Walker
Defensive Back
Cisco College - originally from St. Louis, Missouri
2.5 Tom Cruises

Walker is an interesting recruit. He played high school ball with Stanley Green at Miller Career Academy in St. Louis. Both needed more exposure to gain college scholarship offers, so Green transferred to East St. Louis (where the Illini coaches noticed him and offered), and Walker went the juco route (Cisco College in Texas). Now they reunite in the Illini defensive backfield - Green a junior starting safety and Walker a juco-transfer corner (or safety, but also maybe corner).

MJ Rivers
Lone Star High School - Frisco, Texas
2.5 Tom Cruises

I'm just not that high on Rivers for whatever reason. I watch what I think this offense will be and I watch what Rivers can do and I don't see a match. Hopefully I'm wrong on that, and hopefully Rod Smith would read this and say "you're crazy - I was overjoyed to inherit Rivers as a QB recruit when I took the job", but I just don't see it. Given how college football QB recruiting goes these days (more than half of college QB's eventually transfer), well, I guess I'm saying he's one of the two in this class who eventually transfers. Is the "Project Recruits" section fun? Here I am bashing recruits before they even arrive on campus. I need to go quicker.

Jakari Norwood
Running Back
Deerfield Beach High School - Deerfield Beach, Florida
2 Tom Cruises

Norwood was an early-enrollee tailback. Didn't show much in the spring scrimmage, tiny, long way to go. Need to know more about this offense before I can say how much he'll contribute in the future.

Reuben Unije
Offensive Tackle
IMG Academy - Bradenton, Florida
2 Tom Cruises

Many were surprised that I rated him this low, but I just see him as a high ceiling project. Certainly has the frame, which is why the Oklahomas of the world took a long hard look. He's still likely a long-term project, though, so I'll keep him down here on the project pile and see what we have in a few years.

Matthew Robinson
J Serra Catholic High School - San Juan Capistrano, California
2 Tom Cruises

Similar to Sims, Rod Smith got the job and immediately added a quarterback who fits what he's trying to do. This one is a project recruit with no other major conference offers (he decommitted from Montana in December before selecting Illinois in January), so I have pretty much the same answer that I'm using with the rest of the players down here on the projects list: it will be a while before we know what we have.

Jacob Hollins
Central East High School - Fresno, California
1.5 Tom Cruises

Hollins was the only composite two-star in the class. He had decommitted from Idaho and came down to hometown Fresno State or Big Ten Illinois. He chose Illinois (and was smart to do so - we needed to add at least three linebacker recruits, only added two, so both players have the chance to play early and often.

Kerby Joseph
Jones High School - Orlando, Florida
1.5 Tom Cruises

Joseph was part of the "I have no idea if he's a cornerback, safety, or maybe even a wide receiver" group in this class (Walker, Martin, Hardge, etc). My guess is that S. Brown, Ware, and Joseph end up at safety while Walker, Martin, and Hardge end up at cornerback. But don't quote me on that. It will take a few years to sort out all of these ATH's and see who rises to the top.

Edwin Carter
Wide Receiver
Sandalwood High School - Jacksonville, Florida
1.5 Tom Cruises

Carter, on the other hand, I think stays at wide receiver. I saw that he recently finished 4th at the Florida Track & Field Championships (largest division) in the 110m Hurdles. And you know the Renaldo Nehemiah Principle - if you run hurdles in track, you'll be a wide receiver, not a defensive back. I'm running out of things to talk about.

Julian Pearl
Offensive Lineman/Defensive Lineman
Danville High School - Danville, Illinois
1.5 Tom Cruises

Pearl is a project's project. He will finish somewhere between "never sees the field in college football" and "perennial All-Pro in the NFL". He's this raw, massive athlete with the body to grow into maybe three or four different positions (defensive end, offensive tackle, tight end - who knows). So maybe he's just raw material that never forms into anything... or maybe he's the perfect {offensive tackle} and we all look back at the last player on this list as the best player on this list.

Asamoah Award

Each year I give out my Asamoah Award to the lower-rated recruit who shouldn't be rated that low. It started with Jon Asamoah, an offensive lineman we flipped from Northern Illinois who had future NFL player written all over him (yet was a two-star). So each year I pick a player and say "he's rated way, WAY too low".

Here's the last six winners. (And, as you will note, just like the rest of the roster, the Asamoah Award winners have caught the transfer bug)

2012: V'Angelo Bentley
2013: Marchie Murdock (transferred to Iowa State)
2014: Tito Odenigbo (transferred to Miami)
2015: Caleb Reams
2016: Dominic Thieman (transferred, hasn't named a destination yet)
2017: Mike Epstein

Last year's choice seemed easy - if Mike Epstein was the 59th-best high school running back nationally, I was Mickey Mouse. This year was a little tricker, but My Guy from the beginning needs to be My Guy at the end. 2018 winner: Jartavius Martin.

It's a risky pick - he's far off of nearly everyone's radar - but he's the guy I've identified from the beginning as the most underrated in this class. I think he's just the type of athlete they want in the defensive backfield. My guy.

OK, that wraps things up. The 2017 class was a big step forward, the 2018 class is a slight step back. I might change my mind on that when I see them in person come August, but for now, we fell just short and need to make an even bigger leap forward with the 2019 class.

Oh hey look at that.


DB50 on May 19 @ 12:29 PM CDT

Interesting read Robert, I agree with some of your assessments. My Asamoah award winner would be Matthew Robinson. I have a feeling he could be a "Bennett Williams" type of find.

Nashvegas Illini on May 20 @ 01:36 PM CDT

Robert, I hope your doing well after your surgery. Where is the 2019 wish list of recruits. That's the one I need to see.

John Case on May 20 @ 10:42 PM CDT

The Asamoah award should go to Sydney Brown or Jacob Hollins. Watch Jacob Hollins film on youtube. He's the real deal. Man does he jolt guys on tackles and I haven't seen a LB recruit in 20 years knocking out pulling linemen and lead blockers like that on run plays. He is a physical, physical tackler.

Illinimac68 on May 21 @ 08:46 AM CDT

Glad to see your thoughts on Coran Taylor. He more ore less carried his team in high school; I can't wait to see what he'll be able to do given talented wide receivers and offensive linemen.

John Case on May 21 @ 06:42 PM CDT

Robert, something to take 10 minutes and look at. Reuben Unije. I have no idea how he turns out. However, after I watched his senior year highlights on Hudl, I went back and looked at his sophomore year ones. He moved a heck of a lot better as a big sophomore. Was he injured his senior season? Not taking care of his body? Something changed.

Robert on May 21 @ 09:59 PM CDT

And that falls right in line with everyone backing off of Unije this fall. This time last year he was a top-200 player and probably headed to Oklahoma. Then senior film came out and his one December visit was Illinois.

Hope it was an injury. That would be great for us. Injured, teams back off, he "falls" to us, then gets healthy and dominates.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.