CHAMPAIGN — There was no late-night, spur-of-the-moment decision that led Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams to the University of Illinois.
Both gave Illinois head coach Lovie Smith a verbal commitment in March and both sent their National Letters of Intent to play for Illinois next season.
They're the highest-rated players to sign with Illinois since Terry Hawthorne in 2009 and are the centerpieces so far of an 11-man signing class, though Smith anticipates more players being added to the class.
Players have until Friday to sign before the early signing period ends, forcing them to wait until National Signing Day on Feb. 6.
After finishing 4-8 this season, Smith knew he needed to upgrade the roster; and Beason and Williams, a pair of four-star signees, "highlight" the class.
“The third class should be your best class," Smith said. "We really feel good about it, but the class is incomplete right now, too. We have some other additions that will be coming, maybe in days, but in our future.
“I feel like this class will change Illinois football, and that’s exactly what kind of class we needed to bring in."
Illinois' recruiting class ranked No. 66 in the nation, according to 247Sports.com, and 13th in the Big Ten, but that's correlated with a smaller signing class. In terms of talent, Illinois ranks 31st in the nation according to the average recruiting ranking, which is the highest since the Illini rated 30th in 2007.
Williams comes to Champaign as a 5-foot-10 quarterback from Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis, where he was a dynamic playmaker. He threw for 2,470 yards and 33 touchdowns while rushing for 1,132 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior, leading Trinity to a Class 3 state championship.
“It feels relief," Williams told WCIA. "I’m happy to be a part of the Illini family. Great class. This is the class that could change a lot of things and that’s what we’re coming in to do. We’re coming in to work and change the program around.”
He has strong ties to the Illini coaching staff, including tight ends coach Cory Patterson, who was the head coach at Trinity Catholic from 2015-17 and has coached Williams since he was 6 years old.
“He’s always the same kid. He doesn’t need a lot of attention," Patterson said. "He won’t be on Twitter doing a lot. He’s the same way on the field, the same way in the classroom — he’s got a 4.0 grade point average. He’s not going to talk a lot, You won’t hear a whole bunch out of him. He doesn’t get rattled very much. He’s going to come in and do his work. He’s been that way since he was six years old."
Graduate transfer AJ Bush Jr. started nine games for the Illini in his one year in Champaign. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said the quarterback position is, as it always is to Rod Smith, an open competition. Williams, M.J. Rivers II, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor figure to vie for the job.
If Williams doesn't win the job, some have speculated the Illini could find a different home for him. Rod Smith disagrees.
“I could, but I’m not," Rod Smith said. "I’m going to leave him at quarterback because that’s what he is. I have no frame of mind to move him anywhere else. I want him touching the ball every snap."
Much has been made about Williams' height and concerns about him translating from high school to college football. Those concerns don't exist in Champaign.
“He’s about as electric on the field as probably any guy I’ve seen in high school," Rod Smith said. "He’s phenomenal at what he does running and throwing. I’m super excited about him. I’m not concerned at all about his size."
Lovie Smith pointed out that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray of Oklahoma was 5-foot-10.
“Size is one of the most overrated things I think there is," Lovie Smith said. "Strength isn’t. It’s about what you can do from the chin up, but then the waist down — speed and quickness. They don't give you extra points for being bigger or taller. We want guys who can get it across that goal line as soon as possible and that’s what we’re getting."
Beason is a 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete from Duncanville, Texas, who will play cornerback for the Illini next season after primarily being used as a wide receiver as a high school senior. He chose the Illini over 40 different programs, including Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and others.
“It feels good to finally be officially signed," Beason said. "Everybody had doubts, but I always knew that’s where I was going. It feels good to hush the critics."
Some thought Beason might flip his commitment, ranked as the No. 91 recruit in the nation by ESPN and No. 108 by 247Sports.com and Rivals, but Beason never considered it.
“It wasn’t tough because I know their vision, I know what they have in store for me and I know what they have planned," he said. "It was just a matter of time before I got in there and the program changed."
Lovie Smith spoke highly of Beason's dedication to the program and his speed, quickness and ball skills at cornerback. Receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker said he and Rod Smith will even lobby to get Beason a few reps on offense.
“When you’re a good football player like that, you could go anywhere in the country and you choose to go to the University of Illinois," Lovie Smith said. "It’s not like it was a late-night convincing Marquez at the last hour. No, they bought into it. They believe in what we’re doing. The sky’s the limit for what he can do. We’re excited about getting our hands on him and coaching him up."
Hayes-Stoker, a Texas native, spearheaded the recruiting efforts to land Beason, but Patterson saw just how much Beason lobbied for the program. He was often on Twitter recruiting other players to join him in Champaign.
“It’s awesome to have a kid like Marquez," Patterson said. "He’s an ambassador of the class. He’s a guy who will push everything forward.
“For some reason, he has a little something that other guys want to follow him, and that’s a beautiful thing to have. It’s great for us to get a guy like that."