CHAMPAIGN — Coming out of Chicago Brother Rice High School in 2016, Ricky Smalling was the No. 6 recruit in the state of Illinois.
He was also one of the first to pledge a commitment to Illinois head coach Lovie Smith.
Smalling bought what Smith was selling and was all in on the idea of playing at his home school.
“I saw the vision," Smith said on Tuesday. "I wanted to play for my state school. I saw what they wanted to build and I wanted to be a part of that."
Smalling is also doing his own building: Tacking on brick by brick to his freshman year, when he caught 31 passes for a team-high 501 yards and two touchdowns.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore isn't done. He didn't hit his personal goal last year and has opened camp on a mission, plucking footballs out of the blue Champaign-Urbana sky and exploding past defenders hoping to stop him.
During last Friday's practice, Smalling caught a ball from quarterback AJ Bush, spun past Stanley Green and scampered down the sideline. Later in practice he caught a pass from Bush in the front corner of the end zone that was perfectly placed out of the reach of Cameron Watkins.
It's what Smalling has done this camp: Make the extraordinary look ordinary.
“Rick is a ballplayer," Bush said. "He makes it easy for me and that’s one of the things I love. I want to throw a perfect ball every time, but that’s the thing I like is he’s reliable. He’s a dog. He’s got that Dez Bryant mentality. I can put it anywhere and I know he’s going to at least put his hand on him."
In those moments, when Smalling is spinning around his defenders or tapping his toes in the smallest portion of green before he hits the sideline, the game slows down.
Wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker makes his players practice in a game situations, and preaches to his players to make the quarterback's job easier.
“We practice a lot of catches and Stok always says when we’re practicing, ‘Don’t make it an easy catch. Make it how it’s going to be in the game.’ So we just try to make crazy catches," Smalling said.
Both Bush, a fifth-year graduate transfer from Virgina Tech, and new Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith did their homework on Smalling before arriving in Champaign.
In the offseason, Bush fired up film of the Illini last year and saw playmakers — Smalling being one of them. It became a priority to build a chemistry with Smalling, and the two have built a relationship on and off the field.
“Ricky’s my dog, man," Bush said. "Me and Ricky hit it off quick. Our personalities clicked and our work ethic’s clicked, too. Ricky and I have been trying to get a good chemistry with him. I did my homework on him. He’s a baller, obviously. I just want to be on the same page with him."
Rod Smith has seen the same things from Smalling in the first few weeks of camp that he saw on film.
“He’s very good in one-on-one situations," Rod Smith said. "He understands how to attack the football and catch the competitive throws — the 50-50 balls. He’s very good at that. Plus he runs pretty good routes. He understands how to set people up.
“It’s a combination of things. He’s got a good feel. He’s got very good body control, good ball skills. I really like Ricky."
For Lovie Smith, Smalling's game is about more than the number of catches he had as a freshman, which tied for the team lead with Malik Turner, who is having a breakout preseason with the Seattle Seahawks.
Smalling is passionate about football, and Lovie Smith said he never needs a pep talk to suit up on the field.
“You talk about receivers, how many passes do they catch? That’s the first thing you talk about," Lovie Smith said. "He is a complete receiver. He’s physical, he will block and he’s one of the toughest guys on our team and one of the most competitive guys on our team. There’s nothing to dislike about him."
Smalling and the Illini are hungry.
They want more wins than the two they picked up last year before ending the year on a 10-game losing streak. No sophomore in the Illini locker room has won a Big Ten game.
But they're experienced with a year of college football under their belt.
“It’s not really anger," Smalling said. "We have stuff to prove. We know we’re a way better team than last year and we have a lot of weapons. We were thrown into the fire early and we know what to expect now."