Illinois hosting 10+ recruits for primetime game against Iowa


Sydney Laput

Illinois football head coach Bret Bielema watches the team warm up before the game against Wyoming on Aug. 27.

By Jonathan Alday and Ben Fader

Coming off a dominant win in Madison, more and more attention is coming to Champaign. Bret Bielema, in his second year at the head of the program, is one win away from reaching his first-season win total at the halfway point of the season. This quick turnaround has brought many more media requests for coaches and players but also drawn attention to recruits who may have been skeptical of Bielema’s vision for a historically struggling Illinois program.

Sustained success in Big Ten play is something that Illinois has struggled to have in the last decade. The increased popularity of the program, with smart recruiting, could create a cycle for future success, attracting more and more high-rated players to the program.

Some of these visitors have already verbally committed to Illinois. Others have just begun to build relationships with the coaching staff. For wherever they are in their process, the team’s success could leave a lasting impression on these recruits, erasing the preconceptions held of the program and its past.

6-star K David Olano @DavidOlano8 COMMIT
#3 ranked kicker (Chris Sailer Kicking)
Olano has shown consistency at kicking camps from 55 yards and has the range for 70-yard kicks as well.

When speaking on Illinois’ success, he had high praise for what Bielema has been able to do so far.

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    “I know talking with the coaches and players before the season that the vibes were great and the morale was at its best. I knew Illinois had this in them,” Olano said.

    His senior year at Naperville North Senior has gone well so far, collecting 28 total points as of October 5th, according to MaxPreps, averaging 59.8 yards per kickoff.

    Olano has the potential to be a freshman-year starter for Illinois.

    3-star QB Cal Swanson @_calswanson_ COMMIT
    #11 ranked player in the state of Oklahoma (247 Sports)
    Swanson’s relationship with Illinois grew very quickly. After a fishing trip with OC/QB coach Barry Lunney Jr, alongside a visit and official offer, it did not take long for a commitment to come out of the Oklahoma quarterback.

    Swanson has excellent pocket awareness and deep throw accuracy. His size and speed make him hard to contain and much less tackle. Though he probably will need time to develop in Lunney Jr’s system, his upside is extremely high.

    3-star TE Nathan Guinn @NathanGuinn4 COMMIT
    #78 ranked tight end in the nation (247 Sports)
    Guinn adds to a tight end room that has seen increased production in Illinois’ offensive scheme this year. His raw ability to grow into a Big Ten tight end caught the coaching staff’s attention.

    Guinn bruises opposing defenders with his leverage and is remarkably physical when blocking. He also has an underrated extension when going up for catches, making him more than just a blocker.

    3-star OL TJ McMillen @tjmcmillen44 COMMIT
    #18 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    Another homegrown commit for the Illini comes from Wheaton, Illinois. McMillen is a very driven football player, often pushing opposing defensive linemen to the second level on blocks. He has experience in multiple positions, an invaluable asset throughout the season.

    Although it is unlikely he will see the field for some time, OL coach Bart Miller has success in coaching up numerous All-Big Ten performers and eventual NFL draft picks, Doug Kramer and Vederian Lowe.

    Unranked QB Demir Ashiru @AshiruDemir
    Currently leading his Plainfield North team to an undefeated record, this below-the-radar, dual-threat quarterback has been tearing through teams.

    Ashiru has incredible arm talent and does an impressive job of leading his receivers and placing the ball where it needs to be. Though being extremely under-recruited, he provides a unique development potential. While he does not hold an offer from Illinois well into his senior year, a visit could be a good start for Ashiru.

    5-star P Declan Duley @DeclanDuley COMMIT
    #12 ranked punter (Kohl’s Professional Camps)
    Duley regularly hits 50+ yard punts with 4.7 seconds of hang time. He has also previously hit 5.0 second hang times in high school, which is on the higher end for NCAA punting averages.

    After visiting the program in early September, he received a scholarship offer shortly afterward. His hometown of El-Paso, Illinois lies only an hour out of Urbana-Champaign, giving Bielema another promising in-state product to boost his mission of recruiting Illinois football players.

    “I’m most excited to watch football with my family. I’m bringing my grandpa to the game and he’s been wanting to go to one for a long time now so that’ll be a special moment not just for him but for my family,” Duley said. “I fully believe that they stay true to their mottos. I have been impressed by how they’ve been playing.”

    Duley will be sure to compete for the starting punting role the moment he steps on campus.

    3-star LB Antwon Hayden @AntwonHayden COMMIT
    #26 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    One of Illinois’ first 2023 commitments comes out of one of the top football programs in the state, East St. Louis. Hayden is a long and quick player off the line of scrimmage. He has immense physicality and drive to make tackles.

    Hayden is a player who feels right at home in DC Ryan Walters’ highly physical defense. With current freshman Gabe Jacas making plays at linebacker, Hayden could be placed in the rotation in his first year if training camp goes well.

    Since his verbal commitment, Hayden has served as an influential voice in Illinois’ other recruitment efforts, being present during official visits with other top targets. Especially with such a crucial recruiting day as this Saturday against Iowa, a spokesperson like Hayden will be crucial.

    2-star DL Micheal Garner @g_mikeyx
    #68 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    While Garner currently holds zero power five offers, he is an extremely long defensive lineman (6” 8’) and a matchup nightmare for any lineman. He’s very raw as a player but his mere size provides intrigue to any program looking to give him a chance.

    “The University of Illinois has a lot of respect and glory…in my hometown. It would be an honor to say that I could be a part of a prestigious program like this one,” Garner said. “I love everything about Coach Bielema. I love the energy he brings to the program and how he wants nothing but the best for his players.”

    4-star DB Jyaire Hill @JyaireSuga
    #2 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    Perhaps the most recruited player for Bielema and the rest of his staff is making waves in Kankakee, Illinois.

    Bielema has, on multiple occasions, expressed his desire to convince Hill to commit to the Illinois brand However, Big Ten powerhouse Michigan has made a strong effort to bring in the talented defensive back.

    His aggressiveness while man-to-man and confidence on the football field makes him a great fit for the Illinois defense. However, Michigan’s history of producing top talented looms over the talented senior’s decision. No indication has been given on where he is leaning or when he will announce his commitment.

    Unranked OL Tomago Daniels @TomagoDaniels71
    Daniels has impressed so far this year at the right tackle position, exerting his 305-pound frame on opponents. Even with his size as a junior, Daniels can clear room for his running backs to sprint through untouched.

    Although he has yet to pick up any Power Five offers, he offers a unique body with plenty of potential. Run blocking seems to be his strength, but his physicality could get schools to look at him more. The Illini currently have an impressive offensive line that he will get a glimpse of on Saturday as they go up against a dominant defense for Iowa, giving him a taste of Big Ten football.

    3-star LB Sam Pilof @pilofsam1
    #3 ranked player in the state of Wisconsin (247 Sports)
    This linebacker has already been noticed by multiple Big Ten programs for his physicality at such a young age. Pilof was first-team all-conference and outside linebacker of the year in his sophomore year of high school and has a knack for making game-changing plays.

    Now a junior, he looks even faster and more powerful at the line of scrimmage, shedding blocks and showing off his 4.52 40-yard dash. Pilof does have a single crystal ball for his home state team Wisconsin, but the prediction is not confident, making his visit this weekend important.

    Unranked DE Terrelle Elmore @terrelleelmore
    This will not be the first visit to Champaign for the Indiana product, but the fact that he is returning may mean it won’t be his last. This edge excels at finishing his tackles, a skill many young defensive players lack. Elmore also has incredible speed coming off the line of scrimmage that can beat a tackle in a split second.

    Elmore already has good size at 6″2′ and 220 pounds. Combined with his highlights and athletic ability makes you wonder how he isn’t ranked. The junior shows tremendous upside and could be a steal for the Illini if they can lock him up. Their defensive line is the pride of the defense through five games and Bielema will be looking for another group of young studs to fill the void when the current players graduate.

    Unranked TE Ryan Jostes @Ryan_Jostes
    Jostes is best known right now for being a dominant blocker with a massive frame. Standing at 6″6′ and 260 pounds has proven unfair for opponents.

    “I love how Coach Bielema develops players into being great and focuses on getting better and winning each week.”

    Jostes has yet to tap into his pass-catching abilities too much, but he acknowledges Bielema’s development of players on and off the field. The Illini have built a physical run-first offense this year where a player like Jostes could thrive.

    3-star ATH Ethan Middleton @Ethan5Middleton
    #10 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    A wide receiver turned running back was a transfer made in heaven for the junior out of St. Rita in Chicago. Injuries in the backfield led to the switch and Middleton has shined in the role ever since, solidifying himself as a top player in the state.

    Middleton holds a single offer from Penn State, but more will soon be on the way for the most patient runner in the class. Middleton thrives on waiting for his opening and taking it with emphasis. While he does not have top-end speed, he makes up for it with elusiveness, making defenders miss in the open field.

    Still young, Middleton has plenty of room to fill out and get stronger and faster. Every running back should be impressed with how Chase Brown has developed with the Illini and is drawing more talented players to the program.

    3-star WR Kyan Berry-Johnson @berry_kyan
    #16 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    This kid is good. Berry-Johnson is a receiver who is an elite deep threat and can do just about everything you need a receiver to do. Berry has immense speed on the outside and has burned his fair share of corners already.

    The most impressive part of Berry-Johnson’s game at such a young age is his ability to win a 50/50 ball. His highlight reel is about as impressive as you can find for a high school receiver as he consistently comes down with the ball when the quarterback gives him a chance.

    Berry also shows strength while blocking, something that increases in importance at each level. Overall, Berry-Johnson has an exceptionally mature skillset that can succeed in the Big Ten.

    4-star ATH I’Marion Stewart @IMarion_Stewart
    #5 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    Another high-priority recruit visiting from the home state of Illinois, Stewart is a prospect to follow. The receiver has elite vertical speed and his ability to make defenders miss in the open field has attracted some powerhouses.

    247 Sports, Rivals, and On3 have all predicted that he will commit to Michigan, making Saturday big for Bielema and company to leave a lasting impression on the junior from Bolingbrook.

    The 2024 class will likely be replacing the top three Illini receivers currently on the roster, leaving room for a talented freshman to make an immediate impact. Only time will tell, but the development of current receivers and more wins for the program will likely be necessary to keep Stewart in Illinois.

    4-star ATH Tysean Griffin @tysean_griffin
    #8 ranked player in the state of Illinois (247 Sports)
    Listed as an athlete, this junior from Chicago has growing interest from Power Five schools and has tallied 14 offers thus far. Griffin excels at the running back position and is regarded as the best running back in the Chicago area with two years left to go.

    Griffin’s only visit noted so far was an unofficial visit to Michigan State, meaning the Illini have brought him in early in the process. Griffin has plenty of room to fill out more before college, but his speed and skills currently make him high on the priority list for the 2024 Illini class. The Illini appear to be a contending school right now and watching how the nation’s leading rusher is utilized on Saturday won’t hurt their chances.

    Unranked Andre Lovett @andrelovett_cfk
    While it is still very early in his recruiting, the interest from Illinois is on par with Bielema’s plan to recruit from within the state. Bielema getting early access to potentially high-rated recruits and spending more time with them pays dividends years later, such as the early and crucial commitment of 4-star Kaden Feagin.

    Lovett has the potential to grow into a great player. He has great speed and acceleration, both in the open field and when chasing the ball. He has great length and pursuit. And though very early in his recruitment he already holds an offer from Tennessee.

    Unranked Charlie Hoitink @CharlieHoitink
    After defeating his state’s Big Ten program, Hoitink will be taking a trip south to see the rising Illinois program, which has been generating buzz with its current 4-1 record.

    “Coach Bielema and Coach Miller are working to build a big, mean, and nasty offensive line. I would love to be part of that,” Hoitink said. “The program is determined to and expects to rise to the top of the Big Ten.”

    Fitting the offensive line image that both Miller and Bielema have been assembling. He finishes off defensive linemen, often pancake-blocking them into submission and playing to the whistle.

    Unranked Marcus Thaxton @Da_Future25
    There are very few things not to like about this talented sophomore, He has an incredible arm, is athletic, has great pocket awareness and is a strong pocket passer. Thaxton is currently leading his team to an undefeated record, throwing 11 touchdowns for 760 yards through six games with a quarterback rating of 107.6, according to Maxpreps.

    With plenty of more time to develop as a thrower in high school, he has the chance to be a top-rated recruit with experience in an extremely physical and competitive Chicago Public Schools conference.