Bret Bielema was the perfect head coaching hire for the Illinois football program.
I am not just saying this because Bielema helped lead the Illini to the best season since the Rose Bowl run in 2007. While that is a reason, it is not the only reason.
The ability to understand what recruiting means to a program is something that has caught my eye. I formed that last sentence carefully because the previous coaching regime had a great eye for talent, and I don’t want that to get lost.
Devon Witherspoon wasn’t rated or ranked and Illinois was his only power-five scholarship offer. He was just the No. 5 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Johnny Newton was a sub-1000-ranked recruit, and he is now projected as a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, and he is a preseason first-team All-American.
I think you have to give credit where credit is due. The previous coaching regime at Illinois had a fantastic eye for talent. That doesn’t mean they understood what it takes to win at the college level with respect to recruiting.
Bret Bielema has the Illinois football program skyrocketing upward when it comes to recruiting
My opinion about the previous coaching staff was that they would focus too much on a few top-level recruits and transfers and not enough on building depth within the program.
That strategy would work in the NFL. All NFL players are great athletes, so landing a top free agent could put your team over the top. It would also work at the non-power-five level, where you can out-athlete other teams. But it doesn’t work at the power-five level, where there are athletes all over the field and you need quality depth to keep up.
Bielema understands this and it shows in his recruiting ability. He has been able to juggle the changing recruiting landscape by putting equal focus on talented recruits coming out of high school and in the transfer portal.
The first two recruiting classes of the Bielema era have been top 50 groups, which is an impressive feat considering what he came into. But I ended up diving a little deeper into the talent Illinois was trying to convince to come to Champaign over the last half-decade or so.
So, I wanted to take a look at the recruiting classes that followed both of the last two bowl seasons. Illinois went to the Redbox Bowl in 2019, so I took a look at the class of 2020. I did the same with the class of 2023 since we went to the ReliaQuest Bowl in 2022.
When I talk about Bielema and the current Illinois coaching staff understanding what they need to do in recruiting to win games on the field, this is what I mean. In 2019, Illinois went to a bowl game and the following recruiting class, the class of 2020, we had a total of 21 recruits take an official visit. That breaks down to 2 recruits ranked inside the top 100, 0 from 101-250, 3 from 251-500, 2 from 501-1000, and 14 from 1001+.
Illinois made a bowl game in 2022 as well, but the following class fared much better. The Illini class of 2023 had a total of 39 official visits, which is nearly double that of the 2020 class. Among these players included 0 recruits ranked inside the top 100, 4 from 101-250, 4 from 251-500, 9 from 501-1000, and 22 from 1001+.
Then I thought, maybe COVID-19 had something to do with the lack of official visits in 2020. That didn’t end up being the case. For the class of 2019, Illinois had a total of 13 official visits. It was even worse than the 2020 class.
I can’t stress to you enough how comforted I am by the fact our current coaching regime understands that we need quality and quantity on the roster. The class of 2023, with the 39 official visits, ended up ranking No. 42 in the country. This won’t be a fluke either.
Illinois’ class of 2024 is starting off strong. While we rank No. 67 in the country right now, the official visits are stacked up. This early in the game, the Illini already have 30 official visits scheduled with 8 recruits being ranked 251-500, 8 from 501-1000, and 14 from 1001+.
Over the coming month or so, the Illinois class of 2024 will start to take shape. This used to be an extremely nerve-wracking time for Illini fans. That feeling is no more, though. I trust what Bielema is doing and the proof has been on the field and in the recruiting game.