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INDIANAPOLIS — Bret Bielema has made it clear ever since taking the Illinois coaching job after the 2020 season that he wants to recruit well inside his own state.
“I’m not saying they’re all going to come to Illinois,” Bielema said last week at Big Ten Media Days. “If we can begin to get competitive on the Illinois players, that was probably the one big thing.”
Just how “competitive” Illinois becomes with its in-state recruiting could reverberate about 250 miles away in Iowa City.
As the Hawkeyes begin fall camp Wednesday, they have 22 players on their roster from Illinois — more than the rest of Iowa’s bordering states combined. (The state with the most players, unsurprisingly, is Iowa with 55.)
“We treat Illinois like a home state,” Ferentz said in Indianapolis.
Ferentz pointed to the difference in populations — Iowa has about 3.2 million people compared to Illinois’ 12.7 million, according to 2021 U.S. Census estimates — but that’s not the only benefit.
“You can drive up to Chicago and back in the time it takes you to get to Sioux City or some of the towns in northwest Iowa, so there’s proximity,” Ferentz said. “A huge part of our student body comes from Illinois, especially the Chicagoland area.”
The Hawkeyes were a benefactor of Illinois’ lack of in-state recruiting under previous Illinois coach Lovie Smith.
Many of the 22 Hawkeye players from Illinois did not receive a scholarship offer from the in-state Illini, according to their Rivals recruiting profiles.
Snubs included tight end Sam LaPorta, cornerback Jermari Harris and defensive lineman Noah Shannon. LaPorta could be one of the best tight ends in the country in 2022, and Harris and Shannon are projected starters on a defense with high expectations.
Now, there’s a little more competition for Illinoisans on the recruiting trail from Bielema’s staff.
“Bret’s doing a great job,” Ferentz said. “He’s a very good recruiter, so it’s just kind of upped the level of difficulty for us.”
Two of Bielema’s incoming freshmen — running back Aidan Laughery and wide receiver Eian Pugh — also had offers from Ferentz’s staff, according to their Rivals profiles.
The Hawkeyes won a few recruiting battles, too, on their way to having the 30th-best class, according to Rivals’ rankings while the Illini were 41st.
Wide receiver Jacob Bostick and defensive end Brian Allen Jr. took official visits to Champaign before committing to the Hawkeyes.
The Iowa-Illinois recruiting battle might have more than one winner. Class of 2020 prospects from the state signed with Ohio State, Clemson, Missouri, Northwestern and other Power Five schools, so it’s not just a two-program race.
“There’s probably going to be more players in the state of Illinois than one school can sign,” Bielema said.
Illinois isn’t totally reliant on in-state prospects either.
The Illini also have heavily recruited Florida — an area Bielema has been familiar with since his days on Hayden Fry’s staff at Iowa.
Bielema was recruiting in Minnesota and Chicago when he noticed other schools having success with players from the Sunshine State, so he approached Fry about it on Signing Day.
“I took every team in the Big Ten, and I highlighted where a player from Florida was,” Bielema said. “Literally, they were changing the footprint of the Big Ten by recruiting Florida players, so he said, ‘Ah, looks like we’ve got to send you to Florida.’”
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