Will Illinois' struggles cost in recruiting?
A poor season has some recruits waffling in their commitment to Illini
The word commitment holds different meanings to different people.
When it comes to high school football recruiting, that is especially the case, and Illinois' football program knows all too well about it right now. The Illini have nine commitments for next year, and most of them vary in strength.
For Downers Grove South quarterback Chandler Whitmer, Niles West offensive lineman Shawn Afryl, Lincoln (Fla.) linebacker Mark Wilson and Fulton offensive linemane Michael Heitz, their verbal commitments mean they will definitively be playing for Illinois next season as long as the current coaching staff is in place. They don't like to see the Illini struggling as they are with their 1-5 record, but they see hope for the future and will stay true to their word.
For Proviso East safety Corey Cooper, Johnsburg's C.J. Fiedorowicz and Cass Tech (Mich.) safety Daniel Easterly, their verbal commitments possess a different meaning. They were under the impression Illinois was going to be a thriving program when they arrive next year, and they don't see that happening in the current landscape. So they are keeping their options open.
Although it won't make Illinois staff feel better, there are plenty of programs experiencing the same recruiting struggles throughout the country.
"I think you see it quite a bit," said Tom Luginbill, the national recruiting director for ESPN Scouts Inc. "You're going to see it from programs who are struggling more than programs playing well and going in the right direction. When you're not doing well, it magnifies everything."
Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound tight end, has been keeping close tabs on Illinois' lack of success this season. He sees the Illini not only losing but also not using their tight ends much. Iowa, which is winning and uses its tight ends, has reminded him of that. The Hawkeyes aren't the only program attempting to capitalize on Illinois' woes.
"Iowa, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, all the schools who were interested in me before are calling me again," Fiedorowicz said. "It's crazy again. ... I talk to [Illinois] almost every day, but you don't know what's going on down there. There's the whole trustees thing; all the coaches could get fired. It's kind of crazy right now, so I don't know what's going to happen. I don't want to be on a team that loses eight or nine games a year. If they step it up the last couple games, I'll probably stick with them."
Whether Illinois wins or loses in the next six weeks, Afryl, a 6-3, 300-pound guard, is not going to change his mind.
"I don't see why you're going to bail out if the going gets tough," Afryl said. "Unless there's a major coaching change, I'm going to go the University of Illinois. No question about it. They made a commitment to me. I made a commitment to them to come there and play for them."
It's exactly how Whitmer, a 6-0, 180-pound quarterback and Wilson, a 6-1, 225-pound outside linebacker, also feel. They actually see Illinois' losing as a potential positive.
"They might want to start some freshmen and get some new faces in there," Whitmer said. "Hopefully, they will look for leadership, and hopefully, we can turn it around when I get there. I hope to be that guy."
Wilson said, "Basically, as you can see, they've been struggling on both sides of the ball. Me coming in, I'd be able to have an impact at my position. They can expect a hardworking player and one who'll give it his all. I'm a great leader, but I know how to play my role. I love football. That's the kind of player I am."
The job of making sure Afryl, Whitmer and Wilson are committed is an easy one for Illinois recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell and the Illini's other assistants. Some of the others are more work.
"The obvious answer would be it is easier to recruit when you are winning, but each kid is different," Mitchell said. "You can find kids these days that see early playing time with a team that has been struggling and that can be a reason to go to that school. You also see kids wanting to make their own mark and go somewhere where they can be a star. Ultimately, it comes down to comfort level -- how does a kid feel around the coaches and the current members of the team? And that can make all the difference.
"Obviously, we can't comment on our commitments, so I will say that no matter how a season is going, we have to continue selling until the very end, until that first Wednesday in February."
Cooper, a 6-2, 200-pound safety, has been committed to Illinois the longest -- he committed as a sophomore -- but has also been wavering the longest. From the start, Cooper said he was committed to the Illini but was going to continue to explore his options. Lately, those options have seemed more and more enticing to him. Last week, he visited Notre Dame and said that it was "looking good for" the Fighting Irish. He also recently mentioned Arizona and Tennessee as possible destinations.
"As far as I know, he's going to the University of Illinois," Proviso East coach Aaron Peppers said. "He hasn't told me anything else. I know the other schools are waiting in the balance, and Notre Dame has been aggressive."
Notre Dame also received a visit from Cooper's close friend Kyle Prater, a Proviso West senior, who is considered one of the top wide receivers in the country. Prater previously committed to USC, but later called his verbal "soft" and opened his recruitment back up to Illinois, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
Easterly, a 6-4, 185-pound safety, has a story that is similar to Prater's and Cooper's. He committed to Illinois in the summer and now says he's also considering Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, USC and Wisconsin.
"I don't know what's going to happen [with Easterly]," Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher said. "All the talk is about Zook. Nobody knows what's going to happen to Zook. He's going to get some visits set up. A lot of kids are worried."
Luginbill believes Illinois' recruits have a right to be concerned. Zook's future is uncertain. But if Luginbill were in charge, Zook would be getting at least one more season to prove himself.
"The one thing we have to remember is there is no crystal ball, there's no guarantee, and there's a lot of money being thrown around," Luginbill said. "I think his future is in question. Their athletic director's future is in question. It'll be interesting to see what takes place.
"What I would like to see is him and his coaching staff get through five recruiting classes. How do you judge success and improvement? Has the program improved since he took over? Yes. I think the dip has been substantial. I don't think anyone anticipated to see this type of season."
With their current commitments, Illinois has been building a strong recruiting class. According to Scouts, Inc., the Illini have one four-star recruit (Fiedorowicz), five three-star ones (Cooper, Easterly, safety Dexter McDonald, Whitmer, Wilson) and three offensive linemen with two stars (Andy Gallik, Heitz, Afryl).
Now that some of those top players may be jumping ship, it's frustrating for those who plan to stay on board.
"You want to get the best payers," Afryl said. "They're very talented players. We could use them. They're looking to do what's in their best interest. I'm more of a loyal type of person. I get that from my family -- I'm going to stick through it."
Luginbill, who has also coached at a variety of levels, understands how frustrating decommitments can be. The problem, he believes, is that there isn't enough accountability for those recruits.
"If a coach or program does that, boy, are they given hell about it," Luginbill said. "I think it's unfair. A lot of this is about when the kid makes his verbal commitment, and it's done with, and the attention starts dying down. Kids find they like the process. It becomes a big wicked game."
A game, though, that Illinois' coaches do get. The Illini may not call them soft verbals, but they do know they're dealing with teenagers.
"In the coaching profession, we don't use those types of terms, that seems to be something the general public or recruiting services use," Mitchell said. "I'm not even sure what it means. Before the Internet became prevalent in recruiting, you would always see guys who make early decisions then change their minds or continue to look around. That is just human nature and certainly understandable for 18-year-olds who are making life decisions."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.