CHAMPAIGN — In a normal year, the Illinois football team wouldn't be in this kind of situation. As the story goes, this isn't at all a normal year.
The early signing period for college football players began on Wednesday and Illinois received all National Letters of Intent from high school athletes who had verbally committed in the class of 2021. The class ranks No. 77 nationally according to 247Sports and last in the Big Ten. Three-star wide receiver Chevy Brenson (St. Louis) decommitted after Smith was fired.
In a normal year, that's the expected. In 2020, it's worth a celebration inside the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center, considering the Illini don't currently have a head coach.
Former head coach Lovie Smith was fired on Sunday and athletic director Josh Whitman is in pursuit of a new coach in a process he estimated would be quick. Again, in a year other than 2020, it's reasonable to assume this process would have played out and signees would know who the head coach would be, and likely the assistant coaches on staff. Instead, Illinois remains in limbo.
Whitman conducted a Zoom meeting with recruits on Monday night, assuring them the university would still honor their commitment and provided as much as he could about where the program stands.
“After (Whitman) had a Zoom call with recruits and explained what’s happening and explained how they’re doing everything, it kind of reassured me and made me still feel comfortable with my decision," said three-star offensive lineman Brody Wisecarver, who signed with Illinois on Wednesday. Wisecarver is the highest-rated recruit in Illinois' class and is a three-star offensive lineman who played his senior season at Osage Beach (Mo.) High School.
He's the No. 6-rated player in the state of Missouri and plans to enroll at Illinois in January. He plans to major in biochemistry and said the academics were just as important as the football field.
When three-star defensive back Prince Green from Griffin (Ga.) High School heard the news that Smith was terminated, there were any number of emotions. But he's been committed since May and didn't waver on his decision.
“It hit me hard," Green said. "I’ve always loved competition my whole life and the challenges. I think going forward, bringing this program back and restoring it to greatness was one of my goals. I appreciate everything Lovie Smith did for the program but I’m looking forward to bringing this team back on top along with some new people in my class."
Whitman wasn't the only one in Champaign to reach out to current recruits. The coaching staff, with an uncertain future, worked hard to keep commits in place. Interim head coach Rod Smith said the message to recruits was the same, even without Lovie Smith.
“You just have a real conversation with them," Rod Smith said. "You let them know exactly what’s going on, where they’re at. Part of the reason they committed to come to the University of Illinois is because of the great institution that we have. They didn’t make a mistake. ... You also reassure that everything they agreed to the first time is still here. The opportunity to get a great education, to play great football, that opportunity is still here."
Though there's a bit of confusion around the program, signing day is still a culmination of work and years in the recruiting cycle. To add to the strangeness of this year, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped on-campus visits in March, meaning some recruits, like Green, haven't officially been on campus.
“That Sunday morning it was very chaotic, talking to my parents wondering what we were going to do," said Plainfield East offensive lineman Zach Barlev. "The athletic director was nice enough to get on a Zoom call with all the commits. He was able to reinsure almost all of us that we were all trusting him and we were all going to sign now. That really put my mind at ease after he was able to call us"
No less, signing a college scholarship to play high school football is worth celebrating. Green, his father and some friends had plans to celebrate at Longhorn Steakhouse on Wednesday night.
“It feels amazing," Green said. "It’s a lifelong dream come true to sign to a Division I college."
Said Wisecarver: “It feels good. Really good. I’ve been kind of going through this whole process since freshman year. It’s just nice to be officially done. Officially have my name on the paper and my plan being set."
In a true sign of the strangeness surrounding 2020, Barlev's signing ceremony took place with his family in the basement. His school is learning remotely so a typical signing day ceremony was out the window. After his ceremony he hopped in a Zoom meeting and went to school.
His goal has always been to play football in the Big Ten and was further pushed when Plainfield East alum Jack Sullivan signed to play defensive end at Purdue. At long last, Barlev can say he did the same.
“It’s all crazy," Barlev said. "After going through freshman year and seeing (Sullivan) go to a Big Ten school, I always wanted to do that and now coming out to now right here, all this work has finally paid off."
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25