CHAMPAIGN — At the end of a 4-8 season, Illinois gave coach Lovie Smith a contract extension. As much as it was meant to allay the concerns of potentially wavering recruits, the understanding is this recruiting cycle needs to pay immediate dividends on the field.
Illinois has 10 players committed entering the early signing period that runs from Wednesday to Friday. While that's tied with Maryland for the fewest in the Big Ten — a big reason the Illini's class currently ranks 75th nationally and 13th in the conference in the 247Sports.com composite — the quality of some of their commitments shows progress.
The headliners of the class are 4-star cornerback Marquez Beason of Duncanville, Texas, and 4-star quarterback Isaiah Williams of St. Louis. They're ranked 84th and 109th nationally.
After this class enrolls, most of the players on the team will be Smith's recruits for the first time.
"The first two classes were the foundations," said Jeremy Werner, publisher of Illini Inquirer. "Now they need to win. Isaiah and Marquez give them so much clout with other recruits. Now we need to see them producing. It's time for Illinois to turn this into a winning team."
While Beason's and Williams' commitments appear solid, 3-star defensive end Seth Coleman of Melbourne, Fla., has been garnering more attention from other schools since committing to Illinois in July, with Utah making a hard late push. Illinois has had three players decommit in this cycle, including three-star center Jakai Clark of Loganville, Ga., who flipped to Miami last week.
But Clark's decommitment didn't start a domino effect, and the Illini could add other big pieces during the early signing period. Belleville West defensive end Keith Randolph, the No. 9 prospect in the state, will announce his decision Wednesday between Illinois and Michigan State. He took his final official visit last weekend to Illinois.
The Illini are the favorites to land 4-star linebacker Shammond Cooper, Williams' teammate at Trinity Catholic in St. Louis. Cooper intends to announce his college choice during the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 3, but Illinois is said to be pushing for him to sign during the early period. After Friday, high school seniors can't sign letters of intent until national signing day on Feb. 6.
Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson previously coached Williams and Cooper at Trinity Catholic.
"They really put a lot of focus on a few guys," Werner said. "They put a good nucleus together. Those relationships paid off. It's a class two or three years in the making. This is what you get when there's stability."
Illinois is also expected to hit the transfer market hard this offseason, with potential targets including Georgia tight end Luke Ford, the state's top-ranked recruit in 2018 out of downstate Carterville, and former Miami receiver Jeff Thomas, the No. 2 prospect in Illinois in 2017 out of East St. Louis.
The Illini have four in-state players committed: Phillips cornerback Joseph Thompson, Brother Rice offensive tackle Evan Kirts, Montini running back Nick Fedanzo and Bloomington tight end Griffin Moore.