Illinois’ Early National Signing Day brings in new faces, talent and image for future success

Then-Illinois defensive back recruit Zach Tobe poses for a photo during a visit to Illinois. Tobe is one of 21 commitments to sign with Illinois on December 21, 2022.

Photo Courtesy of Zachary Tobe's Twitter (@OZtobe)

Then-Illinois defensive back recruit Zach Tobe poses for a photo during a visit to Illinois. Tobe is one of 21 commitments to sign with Illinois on December 21, 2022.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

Twenty-one football players joined Illinois head coach Bret Bielema and staff as part of the 2023 class with the signing of their National Letter of Intent on Wednesday’s National Signing Day. Representing nine different states, Bielema has brought in fresh new talent poised to continue to push the level of Illinois football to greater heights. Since Day One, Bielema has preached the importance of relationship building with recruits, focusing on the state of Illinois. In just two years, Bielema has inked 18 in-state players into the program, some of which have already made an impact on the team like freshman safety Matthew Bailey.

“I think the more we stay here, the better we’ll get (at recruiting).
“And I think this is a good indication of this. (In-state) we were recruiting against the best of the best.”

Bielema’s 2023 class started off hot with back-to-back in-state commitments, running back Kaden Feagin and linebacker Jojo Hayden. Feagin represents a shift in program identity “a leap of faith” on program early in spring when they were just getting hot, not much was known about how’d they improve. Hayden has developed tremendously since first receiving an offer from Illinois, he is super athletic, fast and tenacious, a common attribute with Bielema’s defensive recruits. Hayden has also served as the biggest recruiter for Illinois not on staff, constantly talking to his fellow recruits about joining the vision of Illinois.

“(Hayden) has probably got as good of a chance to be a national recruiter as any prospect I’ve ever signed,” Bielema said. “To get two kids out of East St. Louis (OL Brandon Henderson and Hayden) is a really big deal for our program.”

The rest of the recruits would come in batches, often around their official visit dates in early summer and fall. The class would wrap up with defensive lineman Jeremiah Warren’s commitment on Monday. Illinois finishes with the 50th best class in the nation and the 10th best class in the Big Ten.

Biggest question marks

TE

While the addition of Nate Guinn out of Florida adds another great athlete with raw ability, there still are questions on what type of tight end Bielema is looking for in his offense. The tight end position, so far, has had flashes of impact on the offense but mostly serves as a blocking unit. Guinn has the body size and solid hands to become a mismatch on the field but Illinois has not found an impact tight end like Bielema has coached in the past.

QB

Swanson is a very under-recruited prospect out of Oklahoma that Illinois managed to lock down on very quickly. He provides a lot of potential and upside in a rebuilding quarterback room which has only one scholarship quarterback returning. While never expected to be the starter his impact will take years to manifest. This question mark is mostly rooted in Illinois’ awaiting decision on senior Tommy DeVito’s return or the commitment of a transfer quarterback, which Illinois has hosted two.

Biggest improvements

OL

Illinois has massively recruited this class since Bielema arrived at the Smith Center. Him and offensive line coach Bart Miller have rebuilt a line that was heavily reliant on seniors in their fourth, fifth and six-years. Since then, Bielema and Miller have locked into the JUCO market, snagging Isaiah Adams and Zy Crisler last recruiting cycle, who became solid to great starters throughout the year. Illinois went back to the portal to continue that trend with Dez’Mond Schuster to compete for an offensive line job and build another buffer unit for the high school offensive line recruits to grow and develop. In the last two years, Illinois has signed nine high school offensive linemen to help build the room with some already making an impact on special teams. With the OL room increasingly fitting the Big Ten standard, the group is poised to continue developing within the next year.

WR

The wide receiver position was possibly the biggest question mark a year ago, however, position coach George McDonald has quickly turned the room into a stable mix of talented wide receivers with different skill sets. In the 2023 class alone, Illinois has brought in a big target with huge acceleration in Collin Dixon, Kenari Wilcher although played both corner and wideout in high school, exploded at the receiver position in his senior year as an extremely fast target that can easily exploit gaps in the defense. In the 2022 class, Hank Beatty was able to carve out some reps throughout the year and made an appearance as a returner as a shifty and consistent catcher, while Shawn Miller, Eian Pugh and Aston Hollins, who are all over 6-1, have massive length and potential to fill out the rotation.

Biggest impact player

Punter Declan Duley

Illinois felt the effects of not having an All-Big Ten punter for the first time in a long time. The departure of Blake Hayes created unease whether Illinois could find a suitable replacement. Bielema gave the nod to redshirt freshman Hugh Robertson and was met with up and mostly down results. The special teams unit arguably held them back this year for a variety of reasons, prompting Illinois to commit two scholarships to a kicker and punter. Duley will immediately challenge Robertson for the starting role and provides immense versatility with his sheer size being closer to the average linebacker rather than punter. If Duley pans out, it will create one less worry for Illinois in the foreseeable future.

Who’s left?

Malik Elzy

The final crowning jewel to another strong recruiting class and a sign of progress in-state lies with Malik Elzy out of Chicago. Elzy decommitted from Cincinnati in mid-October and has been a priority for this coaching staff. He’s a top-five recruit in the state from a section of IHSA football that hasn’t seen many recruits come to Illinois but sure has seen a lot of talent. Sitting at 6-3, 200 pounds, Elzy is extremely physical at the point of attack and provides further balance to this class’ wide receiver skillset. He holds offers from Wisconsin, Auburn, Tennessee, among others. Elzy announced that he will sign with a school during the early signing period but will wait to announce at the All-American Bowl on January 7th.

Full list of the class of 2023 can be found below:

Zach Aamland – OL – 6-6 – 290 – Fr. – South Brunswick, N.J. – The Hun School

Alex Bray – DL – 6-4 – 250 – Fr. – Chesterfield, Mo. – Marquette 

Jaheim Clarke – DB – 6-1 – 165 – Fr. – Lehigh Acres, Fla. – Riverdale

Collin Dixon – WR – 6-2 – 195 – Fr. – Tallmadge, Ohio – Tallmadge

*Declan Duley – P – 6-2 – 195 – Fr. – El Paso, Ill. – El Paso-Gridley

Pat Farrell – OLB – 6-5 – 240 – Fr. – Oak Lawn, Ill. – St. Rita

*Kaden Feagin – RB – 6-2 – 235 – Fr. – Atwood, Ill. –  ALAH

*Nate Guinn – TE – 6-6 – 220 – Fr. – Vero Beach, Fla. – Vero Beach

*Jojo Hayden – LB – 6-2 – 230 – Fr. – East St. Louis, Ill. – East St. Louis

*Brandon Henderson – OL – 6-5 – 300 – Fr. – East St. Louis, Ill. – East St. Louis

Saboor Karriem – DB – 6-3 – 185 – Fr. – West Orange, N.J. – West Orange

*TJ McMillen – OL – 6-3 – 275 – Fr. – Naperville, Ill. – St. Francis

Mason Muragin – DL – 6-4 – 245 – Fr. – Macomb, Mich. – De La Salle

*David Olano – K – 5-11 – 165 – Fr. – Naperville, Ill. – Naperville North 

*Kaleb Patterson – DB – 6-2 – 185 – So. – Jackson, Miss. – Terry/Pearl River CC

Dezmond Schuster – OL – 6-5 – 330 – So. – Gonzales, La. – East Ascension/Hutchinson CC (Kan.)

*Trey Smith – OLB – 6-4 – 230 – Fr. – Ocoee, Fla. – Ocoee

*Cal Swanson – QB – 6-3 – 190 – Fr. – Ardmore, Okla. – Ardmore

*Zach Tobe – DB – 6-2 – 180 – Fr. – Ocoee, Fla. – Ocoee 

Jeremiah Warren – DL – 6-3 – 290 – Fr. – Belleville, Mich. – Belleville

*Kenari Wilcher – ATH – 6-0 – 170 – Fr. – Clewiston, Fla. – Moore Haven

* denotes early enrollee

 

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