College Football Recruiting: Chicagoland Stars Not Staying Home

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January 4, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Team Nitro wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (4) runs with the ball as Team Highlight cornerback Maurice Smith (14) attempted to defend during the second half at the Under Armour All-America high school Game at Tropicana Field. Team Highlight defeated the Team Nitro 16-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Both McGovern and Friend’s career paths parallel each other with startling consistency. Friend is going to get his first crack collegiately at tight end, but it’s likely he’ll develop into an athletic left tackle like McGovern.

The 124th best player in the country according to ESPN, McGovern had the more impressive offer list, but Friend also had double-digit scholarship offers, including five from BCS schools. Both are dedicated students who were heavily influenced by the academic standing of their prospective schools, and both are big, soft-spoken kids with surprisingly soft features that make them look young for their age.

Both players also wound up choosing to leave the state, and that’s a noticeable trend for many of the top players in Chicago and, on a larger scale, Illinois. Of the state’s Top 15 prospects per—all but three of whom are from Chicago and its surrounding suburbs—12 different schools were represented on National Signing Day. No school in the country managed to sign more than a pair, while Illinois and Northwestern combined to sign only three.

The state’s top three prospects, Treadwell, Isaac and Lemont offensive tackle Ethan Pocic, not only chose to leave the state, they left the Midwest entirely, electing to go to Ole Miss, USC and LSU, respectively. All three were products of the south suburbs, an area traditionally ripe for the picking by Big Ten schools. Yet, all three elected to go a different direction.

“This state is almost too easy to recruit,” said Tim O’Halloran, the longtime publisher of popular Illinois high school football website, “The reason I say that is the fact that if you’re an Ole Miss, a USC, or a school that isn’t from this region, you can fly into Midway or O’Hare, rent a car, go to a dozen schools and be out that night.”

The prohibitive void left by the lack of a dominant local college football team also played a factor and allowed schools like Ole Miss and USC to be major players hundreds and hundreds of miles from their front doorstep.

Notre Dame just played in the national championship, but the Irish will always recruit nationally and they’ll continue to cherry-pick in the city of Chicago. The Golden Domers are probably positioned best to dominate area-recruiting with their deep and long-running connection with established Catholic programs like JCA, but Notre Dame continues to be selective and otherwise simply not inclined.

Northwestern markets itself as Chicago’s Big Ten team and they’ve had success under Pat Fitzgerald, but their academic standards make it extremely difficult to consistently draw from the top talent in the area, as well. In the Class of 2013, the Wildcats only signed five kids from the state in total, and only quarterback Matt Alviti was ranked among Illinois’ 10 best players.

Meanwhile, the University of Illinois has probably had the most success throughout history of consistently drawing talent from Chicagoland. And although their program has ridden the rollercoaster in the last several decades, in the up years (the early 80’s, 2001 and 2007 come to mind), they’ve been carried on the shoulders of metro Chicago’s high school stars.

Unfortunately, Tim Beckman is still tasked with developing those relationships with area high school coaches that pay dividends on the recruiting trail. That certainly becomes more daunting on the heels of a 2-10 season in his first year at the helm in Champaign.

“I actually think Illinois did a good job recruiting in-state,” Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said during a phone interview on National Signing Day. “I wanna say that eight, maybe nine, of their total commits came from the state of Illinois.”

Like Helmholdt said, the Illini were able to snag eight signatures from in-state athletes, but in the early stages of the Beckman era, it appears as if the onus has been placed on reestablishing connections with downstate programs. Of the eight recruits Illinois did sign from within its borders, only two came from the Chicagoland area. Even worse, only Bolingbrook’s Aaron Bailey was a Top 10 talent.

If Beckman is going to be successful at Illinois, he has got to be able to dip heavily into Chicago, where the majority of the state’s talent lies. However, that’s not a task that Edgy Tim thinks any school is capable of in this day and age.

“People always say, ‘Why can’t Illinois lock up this state?’ Or, ‘Why can’t Northwestern lock up all these kids?’ Well, it’s impossible. Chicago—unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it—is one of the most accessible cities in the country. You can get direct flights here from all over the country every day. That certainly impacts recruiting. So, as far as ‘locking up the state’, I don’t see anyone doing it here. Illinois, Northwestern, (NIU), they’re always gonna have to share recruits.”

That level of volatility may be pushing in-state institutions away entirely. Northwestern signed as many kids from Ohio this year as they did from Illinois, and they signed three players apiece from Texas and California. Under Ron Zook, Illinois was drawing a considerable amount of their talent from Florida (Zooker’s old stomping ground) and the District of Columbia, where former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley was from. Tim Beckman’s ties in Ohio saw the Illini sign five players of their own from the Buckeye state in 2013.

All told, the landscape is clearly changing and Chicagoland football has become a feeding frenzy for recruiters from across the country.

“It’s crazy to think how national (recruiting) has become,” Helmholdt said. “When has an Ole Miss been able to come into Chicago and take the state’s top player?”

And he’s right. Two decades ago, it may not have been uncommon to see a major national player try their hand at an elite prospect from Chicago here and there. However, Ole Miss isn’t exactly a national player, and they’re not the only ones trying their luck in the area. In previous years, these schools would have had an incredibly difficult time overcoming the distance factor. What we’re seeing now, is that the fear of moving away and falling out of touch with friends and family is virtually nonexistent.

Social media has become such a dominant and instantly connective tool of communication that it is slowly eliminating distance as a factor in these decisions. Recruiters know this, and that’s why they use it to their advantage. The NCAA limits face-to-face visits, phone calls and text messages, but they’re still lagging behind in terms of regulating social media contact.

Of course, this comes with consequences.

“For me, social media is just another avenue to disseminate information,” Helmholdt said. “But, the way it’s affected recruiting is now you have fans directly interacting with prospects, which is actually illegal. The NCAA has been too lax to do anything about it: one, because I don’t think they’re a very competent organization, and two, because it’s such a widespread issue I’m not sure they know where to start.

“What I worry about are these start-up blogs or people who are fans, and these guys are trying to contact recruits. Now, I get recruits coming back to me and saying that some of these people are trying to recruit them to particular schools.”

Because of that fact, the NCAA will have to eventually move towards regulating social media use as it directly relates to recruiting, and Twitter and Facebook’s use as a recruiting tool may be tempered. However, the fact that social media continues to influence the way we communicate is only likely to grow from here. That means proximity will continue to be less and less an issue.

College football is an institution that is enamored with tradition (which probably explains the signing day faxes), but even in a sport guarded by often pedantic rituals, technology is dramatically changing the way people do things. In Chicago, we’re even seeing traditional recruiting boundaries go by the wayside.

In basketball, we often wonder who Chicago’s team really is. That question is equally puzzling in football. And while the prospect of a new stadium for DePaul and John Groce’s early success at Illinois sparks optimism for basketball recruiting in Chicago, keeping locally grown football talent at home is becoming a more difficult proposition.

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