Illinois football’s Smith is all smiles with 2017 class


Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith smiles during the game against Murray State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 3. The Illini won 52-3.

By Mike Gasick, Assistant sports editor

Illinois football head coach Lovie Smith’s face broke into big smiles while he talked about his team’s 2017 recruiting class during Wednesday’s press conference.

He joked about having many great meals with the recruits, and how his new offensive linemen are “good-looking guys.”

The smiles continued for Smith as he explained what this new wave of players means for the program’s future.

Smith signed 20 new players on National Signing Day in addition to four early enrollees. He said this year’s Signing Day will allow fans to see a better Illini team in years to come.

“An outstanding job by our recruiting staff and our coaching staff,” Smith said. “I had a chance to go into a lot of homes, a lot of places and spend some quality time with our assistant coaches. To just listen to them sell our university, they did a great job with that.”

Ten of the signees are from Illinois — the most the program has taken in from the state since 2003.

Smith said he and his staff made a priority to recruit within the state, along with the St. Louis area and Florida. Defensive back Dawson DeGroot, tight end Louis Dorsey, running back Mike Epstein and defensive linemen Deon Pate and Bobby Roundtree are all from the Sunshine State.

The Illinois coaching staff is optimistic of the high-leverage players that signed National Letters of Intent.

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said he is excited to see how the Illini’s newest running backs, Ra’Von Bonner and Epstein, fit into the system.

“Both of those guys can carry the football 20 times a game,” McGee said. “Ra’Von is a little bigger; he is more of a banger, where Mike has a little more foot speed, so they are going to be a good combination with each other.”

Signees Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith will join early enrollee Carmoni Green, along with junior Malik Turner and sophomore Mike Dudek, on the receiving corps. The coaching staff also added Marian Catholic quarterback Cameron Thomas, who has more foot speed than most quarterbacks, according to McGee.

Protecting the future quarterback will be 6-foot-5, 310-pound Larry Boyd, 6-foot-5, 330-pound Vederian Lowe and 6-foot-6, 270-pound Alex Palczewski. The three players will join mid-year enrollee HoJo Watkins Jr. on the offensive line.

The Illini defense also received additions. Roundtree, who was the final Illini to sign today, Pate, Kendrick Green and Jamal Woods round out the newest defensive linemen.

Multiple defensive backs also signed, helping make up for defensive losses of Dawuane Smoot, Hardy Nickerson Jr. and Chunky Clements.

Smith may have put on his biggest grin when he talked about the goals this class can live up to.

“Taking you back to last year, we had big plans to put our football team in a position to win championships,” Smith said. “I’ve always said one of the main reasons we’re going to do that would be our coaching staff, and as we’ve gone through this recruiting season, I think that even more.”

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