CHAMPAIGN – When defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson went recruiting to his home state of California last weekend, he already knew the first question he’d be asked.
“The first thing they all want to know is, ‘What’s the weather there?’” Nickerson said after using the recent bye week as a chance to introduce himself to West Coast prospects. “They’re surprised when I tell them, ‘Man, it’s cooler out here than it is in Champaign.’”
Nickerson, head coach Lovie Smith and the eight other coaches allowed to recruit off-campus scattered around the country this past weekend, hitting high school hallways, prep sidelines and junior colleges in search of players who can help Illinois win in the Big Ten Conference.
For coaches like Smith and Nickerson, who until this season had been working in the National Football League, it was a chance to reacquaint themselves with a process that is the lifeblood for stocking college football rosters.
“Head coaches can’t go out in the spring so this was my first chance to get out and represent the university,” said Smith, who last recruited in 1995 when he was coaching defensive backs at Ohio State. “It was all good.”
Smith traveled to Florida, where he still maintains a home after being head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014 and 2015. Despite the fact that Illinois is 1-2 heading into this week’s game at Nebraska, Smith said the message he brought to Florida was no different than if his first Illini team opened 3-0.
“The message is that the University of Illinois is a great place for an athlete to come to school for the degree, for the experience you’ll get and to be a part of how we do things. If you’re an athlete out there, now they at least know what we’re going to do. The response has been really good, I know that.”
Smith said it was important to get coaches in front of the players they are pursuing.
“All of our coaches were out,” he said. “We felt like we flooded the country as much as we could.”
Nickerson is from the San Francisco Bay area. He played collegiately at Cal and left a job as linebackers coach with the 49ers to join Lovie Smith at Illinois. He is trying to open doors that would allow the Illini to become a larger recruiting presence on the West Coast and it doesn’t hurt that his high-profile son now leads the Big Ten in tackles as Illinois’ middle linebacker. That son, also named Hardy Nickerson, transferred from Cal.
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“The reception was great,” Illinois’ defensive coordinator said. “We got a chance to see some recruits and they were excited to see me, excited to hear about what we’ve done and what we’re building. I was very encouraged about that.
“After they ask about the weather, the next thing they want to know is where we’re located in relation to Chicago. Guys are curious. But the reception has gone really well. Guys want to come and see what we have going on, so that’s pretty big.
“The challenge is educating the recruits on where we are and just about the university in general. Talking to them about this great school opened a lot of eyes. And when you mention coach Smith, the interest level goes through the roof.”
Nickerson said a positive factor in selling the University of Illinois is the presence of the Big Ten Network.
“With our games on television every week, that has helped tremendously,” he said. “Kids are worried about their parents not being able to see them but they can see them in the comfort of their own homes and that’s huge.”
Nickerson said he is tackling the responsibilities of recruiting just like he would any assignment during his 16-year NFL playing career. He attacks it aggressively.
“This is my first go-around with recruiting so I’ve just been going full speed ahead,” he said. “I just talk to kids and am honest with them about what we’re doing. I’ve talked to their high school coaches and they’ve been very receptive to what we have and what we have to offer.”
Smith believes Illinois is doing well on the recruiting trail, despite having a new staff that didn’t get started until March, long after the current 2017 recruiting cycle was underway. He’s banking on making positive impressions that recruits won’t be able to ignore.
“I didn’t know my wife before I met her and we seemed to click just like that,” he said. “The other part of the message is to be a part of this on the ground floor and as we go forward.
“I really do believe (recruiting) is like riding a bike. It’s not like I’ve been in a third-world country. I’ve been dealing with people. I’ve met parents before. You talk to people selling a product and it comes back to you pretty quick. And we have a great product to sell.”