Illini Recruiting Hot Board: Top LB Targets to Watch For Illinois’ 2021 Class

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It would be difficult to argue that there isn’t a position of the football field that Lovie Smith personally owns more than a linebacker.

Linebacker is the position he played at high school in Big Sandy, Texas and then where he became a two-time All-America selection at Tulsa. When he became a college coach at Tulsa, Wisconsin Arizona State and Kentucky, the linebacker group was his responsibility. When Smith entered the NFL, he got the opportunity to develop Hardy Nickerson with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and eventually made Nickerson his first defensive coordinator at Illinois. When Smith personally took over the defensive coordinator play-calling duties in 2019, it was going to be assumed Smith would have to go outside his football family for the program’s linebacker coach. Smith didn’t even go outside his own family tree as he hired his son Miles to coach the Illini’s second unit of defense as his first job in college football. And while Miles has the title, it is understood that the Illinois linebacker unit in charge of the takeaway-happy system, which has historically produced seven first-time All-America selections and two Pro Football Hall of Fame honorees, of Jake Hansen, Milo Eifler and Khalan Tolson has Lovie Smith’s coaching stamp all over it.

The future of Illini linebackers is highlighted by current redshirt freshman Shammond Cooper as the former four-star recruit of Trinity Catholic High School in St. Louis is expected to emerge as a difference maker in the next few years. Illinois already added to the linebacker unit with the 2021 recruiting class with the commitment of three-star prospect Trevor Moffitt, who is the son of a two-time All Big East Conference player and arguably the most famous defensive player in the recent South Florida football history.

“You’re not going to find a guy that works harder but at the same time and on top of that, in the most humble way I can say this - I think I’m one of the most athletic kids in the country and I mean that,” Moffitt said. “And with a guy like (Illinois head coach) Lovie Smith and (Illinois linebacker coach) Miles Smith leading me, I think the sky's the limit for me. I think I can be an All-American.”

Since May 1, Illinois football has seen its number of commitments in its 2021 recruiting class rise from one to 10. Illini Now/Sports Illustrated wants to give you some names to watch as we get to the summer months and Lovie Smith’s program attempts to fill out what should be its largest class in recent years.

LINEBACKERS

Kendrick Blackshire - Duncanville (Texas) High School, 6-2, 245, Four Stars by 247Sports.com and Rivals.com - Offer List: Illinois, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Baylor

So, we’ve all seen the Sesame Street sketch game of ‘One of these things is not like the other’, right? When Blackshire, one of the most coveted linebackers in the state of Texas announced on April 22 the top six schools he was still considering, Illinois certainly seemed like the oddball of the half dozen. However, it should be noted Lovie Smith, who usually doesn’t get active in a prospect’s recruitment until he arrives on campus for an official visit, has been involved early and often in getting Blackshire interested in Illinois. The coronavirus affecting coaches from traveling and bringing recruits on campus has forced Lovie Smith to get more active. Is Illinois a courtesy mention for Smith is from about 90 minutes east on Interstate 20 from Blackshire’s hometown near Dallas-Fort Worth? Possibly but if his interest is legit in reinvigorating the Illini tradition at linebacker, there’s a lot for Smith to like about the prospect. The first thing the Illini head coach looks for in a linebacker is his eye discipline and Blackshire, who was a Texas District 11-6A Co-Defensive Newcomer of the Year as a freshman at Horn High School in Mesquite, Texas, doesn’t allow the backfield eye candy to distract. Blackshire suffered a torn ACL injury last season and it is possible Illinois could get an advantage on the Power Five Conference national title contenders still waiting to see Blackshire live before getting too deep into his recruitment.

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Dylan Hazen - College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas, 6-1, 220, Three Stars by 247Sports.com and Rivals.com - Offer List: Illinois, Arizona, Kansas, Washington State, Wake Forest, Colorado State and Air Force

When Illinois offered Hazen on March 27 just a few weeks after the campus was on shutdown due to the COVID-19 epidemic, it was his first offer from a Power Five Conference school. Very shortly after Illinois making its interest known nationally, that was shortly not the case for the 220-pound linebacker and his phone wouldn’t stop stop buzzing.

“When choosing a college, I’m looking for one of the best academic schools combined with an amazing football program,” Hazen said to Illini Now/SI in March. “Definitely, having a coach with NFL experience means that I’m able to learn from one of the best out there, and develop to the best of my ability.”

Hazen had 73 tackles and seven sacks as a sophomore at College Park High School, which caught the eyes of the Smith’s father-son duo and Miles Smith began to contact the 220 pounder immediately. Hazen, who also boasts a 4.75 grade point average, seems intent on waiting out the COVID-19 epidemic until the NCAA allows coaches to finally bring prospects to campus for a visit before he narrows down his list, which now includes at least five more Power 5 schools.

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Dedrick Smith - Robert E. Lee (Jacksonville, Fla.), 6-1, 200, Three Stars by 247Sports.com and Rivals.com - Offer List: Illinois, North Carolina, Colorado, Florida Atlantic

Dedrick Smith is the definition of getting an opportunity for a two-for-one in a family. Dedrick’s older brother, Derrick, is expected to make an impact in the Illini linebacker after the former four-star prospect has completed his transfer from Miami (Fla.). Dedrick is a developing prospect that has intrigued the Illini staff one reason - speed. Smith used to be a wide receiver until his body went from 150 pounds to 200 pounds and his increased size was seen as a menacing weapon off the edge at linebacker. Dedrick Smith’s skillset seems made for the ‘Lovie Ball’ style of Illinois defense predicated on creating takeaways and putting 11 guys on the field with the athleticism to run to the football until the whistle. Dedrick Smith will obviously need the weight room speciality of Illini strength coach Lou Hernandez but all indications are Illinois will remain at least one of the favorites for Dedrick Smith until he ultimates makes a college decision. Illini fans might want to get ready for a pair of brothers from Jacksonville making lives miserable for Big Ten Conference quarterbacks in the 2022 and 2023 season. 

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