CHAMPAIGN — Shammond Cooper stood near the end zone of the visitors' sideline of Memorial Stadium and watched the Illinois football team go through drills.
It was a chance for Cooper, a Class of 2019 football signee from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, to get a firsthand look at how the Illini ran practice. He wasn't alone on the field, though. Other Illini signees walked around and perspective recruits for the Class of 2020 and beyond watched how Illinois conducted its business during an open spring practice on Saturday.
At one point, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith walked right in the direction of Cooper. Smith interlaced his right arm with Cooper's left arm and the two walked in lockstep to near midfield. Cooper's attention suddenly shifted from a position drill on the sidelines to the middle of the field, where he is starting to envision himself in an Illinois jersey adding depth to the linebacker group.
Cooper prides himself on knowing a thing or two about the history of football. Of course he knew who Smith was before the recruiting process that ended with him picking Illinois over Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida State, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Texas A&M and more on national television during the ESPN Under Armor All-American game. As a senior, he had 120 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss and five sacks on his way to a Class 3 state championship for Trinity Catholic.
He couldn't contain his smile when talking about Smith, his new head coach and defensive coordinator.
“I like to say I’m an avid NFL fan," Cooper said. "I knew exactly who Lovie Smith was. Everyone knows who he is, he’s a Super Bowl coach. It was a big impact on him and being able to say I’ll be coached by Lovie Smith is (big). Being around him for the first time and going into his offense for the first time was like: I’m really here."
Cooper's decision to join his high school quarterback, Isaiah Williams, in Champaign is beyond simply playing for Smith. If there's one thing Cooper's father, Bill Cooper, knows about his son is that the thrives in familiarity. Illinois has treated Shammond like a priority since recruiting started. On trips to Champaign, everyone knew who Shammond was, and not just the people who were supposed to know, Bill said.
Bill Cooper knows it sounds clichè, but the family atmosphere was a draw to Shammond.
“My son is a guy who flourishes in familiarity," Bill Cooper said. "When he’s comfortable, you see the real Shammond. When he don’t, Shammond ain’t going to say two words. He’ll just sit there. You won’t even know he’s in the room. When he’s comfortable, he’s dancing with everybody and playing."
On Saturday, Shammond appeared comfortable and clicking with the players who will soon be his teammates.
Then there's the matter of Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson, who is in his second year with the Illini after leaving his job as head coach at Trinity Catholic. Patterson watched these Trinity Catholc kids grow up and into highly regarded recruits.
“That’s like my second dad," Shammond said. "I love him like my second dad. He played a huge factor in me coming in here and deciding to pick Illinois. I knew there was somebody who I truly loved."
Cooper adds depth and talent to the linebacker group that includes Jake Hansen, Milo Eifler, Dele Harding and Delano Ware. On Saturday, while overlooking practice, Cooper talked about his excitement to join the team in the summer and make an immediate impact for the Illini.
He was rated the No. 13 linebacker in the country by ESPN and No. 26 inside linebacker in the nation by 247Sports.
“He’s a football guy; a good student," Smith said during his press conference on National Signing Day in February. "In your spare time, what do you do? Football. In some form: Watching football, lifting — he’s really into the weight room. He’s played at a high level. There’s a certain type of confidence that he’s bringing in, too."
Bill Cooper said he's been sold on Shammond choosing Illinois since the beginning, but wasn't going to force his son into a decision. Instead, he let Shammond organically come to the decision. The wins will come — Shammond Cooper and the Illinois coaching staff are confident in that.
“It will be legendary," Shammond said. "We’ll be legends up here if we come up here and turn things around. Being a historic program like it was back in the day, it will be a great thing for us to restore that back."