NCAA grants WR Hightower immediate eligibility

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Photo Courtesy of Brian Hightower's Twitter

Recently recruited wide receiver Brian Hightower practices drills at Memorial Stadium.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Illinois hasn’t been a top tier program on the gridiron. Sure, Illinois has produced the best offensive player — Red Grange — and defensive player — Dick Butkus — in college football history. But the reality is, Illinois will never be able to go down to recruiting hot spots and pluck out the top high school talent in the country. Luckily, head coach Lovie Smith has adapted with the transfer portal. 

Miami Hurricane transfer Brian Hightower has been granted immediate eligibility, giving Lovie Smith and his offense a boost in the wide receiver department. Hightower joins fellow transfers  Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Luke Ford, providing senior quarterback Brandon Peters the most dynamic weapons he’s had in Champaign. 

Coming out of high school, Hightower was one of the most sought after four-star recruits in the country, receiving scholarship offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson. Known for his prototypical size and speed, the IMG Academy graduate decided to stay close to home, choosing to play for former head coach Mark Richt. 

At Miami, Hightower was never really able to gain traction. After scoring a touchdown in his first game of his collegiate career against the LSU Tigers, Hightower struggled to find playing time and finished with only 11 more catches in two years. Hightower decided it was best to start fresh.

“I’m grateful to be here,” Hightower said. “A couple months ago I didn’t know where I was going to go. There’s a great group of guys, a great group of coaches. I’m loving it.”

Illinois is shaping up to have its best offense in the Lovie Smith era. Senior quarterback, a seasoned offensive line and two athletic tight ends all point to a potential air raid attack. However, one lingering question was the wide receiver spot. Hightower is confident he can help those concerns. 

“I’m an all-around receiver,” Hightower said. “Being as big as I am, I can do a lot of things. I’m not only going to get myself better but help others get better, too.”

Hightower is on a similar path to senior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, a former USC wide receiver who transferred. Imatorbhebhe shined and emerged as Peters’ top target, leading the team with nine touchdowns. His success may have played a role in getting Hightower to move to the Land of Lincoln.

“I would always see (Imatorbhebhe),” Hightower said. “I would go visit USC at times. Seeing him here and seeing him succeed, I thought we could do it together.”

Due to coronavirus, the college football season faces the possibility of being punted. Even with no fans or non-conference games, the sport continues to face more hits due to potential safety concerns. 

Right now the Big Ten is aiming for a spring football season to make up for lost revenue even though that means the conference will miss out on bowl games and the national championship hunt. Five Big Ten teams made the preseason AP poll, including Ohio State debuting at No.2. 

Even with the proposed idea of a spring season, it’s possible the season gets completely shut down, similar to what happened during March Madness last season. 

Given that Hightower was on a team that’s on schedule to play this fall, it’s likely he’ll watch his former team compete while he’s quarantining in Champaign. Hightower doesn’t carry hard feelings, though. 

“I just feel like God does things for a reason,” Hightower said. “I’m not really worried about it. I still root for (Miami). It was my home at one point. Shoot, I hope they win the ACC to be honest.” 

Hightower comes to Illinois during one of the most unprecedented times in American history. The coronavirus has ravaged the fabric of our society, cancelling football games, altering college life, and affecting people’s path to the next level. The silver lining: it’ll end at some point, although we don’t know exactly when that’ll be. But when Hightower chose to don the Orange and Blue uniform, he wasn’t thinking about the immediate convenience. He chose Illinois because he’s seen the flashes of success and thinks that can be replicated in the future. 

“Seeing what they were building, seeing the big games they won last year, I wanted to be a part of that,” Hightower said. “Bringing something back here, it’s been a while.”

Hightower has the tools, the vision and quarterback to throw to him. Now he just needs the Big Ten to clear all players for game action.

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