When Daniel Helm showed up at Soldier Field on June 5 for the Rivals.com Five-Star Challenge, people weren’t exactly sure what to expect. At one of the premier showcases in college football recruiting, a somewhat lanky tight end from a small school in central Illinois wasn’t really expected to put on a show.
Then, in redzone work, Helm made one spectacular play. Then another. By the time his team (Team Yahoo!) won the 7-on-7 tournament to cap the event, it was clear that Helm was a deserving of his four-star status, and in the latest Rivals evaluation period he also claimed bragging rights as the No. 1 rated tight end in the nation.
Just south of Illinois’ capital (Springfield), Chatham is only a 90-minute drive from the University of Illinois. The Fighting Illinois were one of the first to offer, and most of the rest of the Big Ten came calling, as well. However, Helm spurned not just the state’s advances (Northwestern offered, too), he spurned the entire Midwest in favor of the Tennessee Volunteers and the SEC.
It’s become a trend for prospects throughout the Land of Lincoln.
Less than six months ago, I spoke with athletes and analysts for a piece about college football recruiting in the state of Illinois. In the past two seasons, the state has featured a level of talent and depth that it hasn’t had in some time. Yet, with Illinois struggling to tread water and Northwestern’s academic requirements, the vast majority of the state’s talent is choosing to play their collegiate football outside its borders.
In the Class of 2013, the state’s Top Three prospects not only chose to leave the state, they left the region entirely with Laquon Treadwell heading to play for the Ole Miss Rebels, Ty Isaac choosing to play for the USC Trojans and Ethan Pocic donning the purple and white of the LSU Tigers. All told, only three of the state’s Top 15 prospects chose to play their college football at either of the state’s two Big Ten institutions.
This year, the state features even more talent and depth than in 2013. The Rivals database reports 96 prospects with Division I offers in Illinois, 40+ of which have BCS offers with 13 being ranked as four-stars.
Yet, with all that high-major talent floating around, only two (Wheaton North QB Clayton Thorson and Glenbard North RB Justin Jackson) are committed to in-state schools, both of which being currently pledged to the Northwestern Wildcats. Of the four uncommitted Illinois four-stars, only Bolingbrook’s Parrker Westphal seems genuinely open to staying at home.
So why are kids who grew up inside of the Big Ten’s footprint neglecting their two in-state Big Ten options (both of whom offer an OUTSTANDING education) in favor of leaving the state and even the conference?
[[ RELATED: Chicagoland Stars Not Staying Home ]]
Well, the answer has many layers (like onions) that are best examined in the piece from February, but one common thread in most recruits leaving is the opportunity to play for a national championship. Even with Northwestern set to field one of their most competitive squads in the program’s history, the state hasn’t had a legitimate title contender in the BCS era and FAR beyond.
The Wildcats won their first bowl game since the 1948 Rose Bowl last season, and Pat Fitzgerald has built a winning program in Evanston, but he’s done so mostly on the backs of recruiting classes ranked outside the Top 75 in the country, having been hamstrung by stringent admission requirements and choosing to recruit to fit his system instead. The recent success has afforded stronger recruiting this season, but even in their best year it’s hard for the Wildcats to blanket the state considering their academics.
Meanwhile, the University of Illinois has been able to recruit the state well in the past, but second-year head coach Tim Beckman has struggled to develop the bonds within the state that pay dividends. And, even as he familiarizes himself with coaches and players, most will be skeptical until they see a dramatically improved product on the field.
Of course, there’s dozens of other factors having to do with the state’s infrastructure and the current state of recruiting, but ultimately, until Illinois or Northwestern affords these kids a legitimate chance at winning a championship, it’s hard to imagine anyone building the proverbial fence around Illinois. Kid’s like Helm even see more hope to win immediately at a place like Tennessee with a new coach coming off a losing season (granted, the Vols currently have the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class) than they do staying at home.
That’s obviously a problem. One with no foreseeable end in sight.