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Will this bold recruiting move be the thing that finally turns Illinois around?

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Illinois has the attention of the best recruits in St. Louis thanks to a savvy coaching hire.

LB Shammond Cooper
Bud Elliott

“The Movement!”

“Mooooooovemennnnnt!”

The cheers rang out Sunday in Chicago as elite local players were given invites to Under Armour’s All-America Game. “The Movement” referred to the Illini’s efforts to get top products from Chicago and St. Louis to stay home and play for the Illini.

It’s a bold endeavor. Illinois is a bad program. Since 1995, it has finished with a winning record just five times. None of those seasons came since current recruits entered middle school. The Illini were 3-9 in 2016, the first under coach Lovie Smith, and 2-10 in his sophomore campaign.

And yet, the Movement is real.

It’s real according to regional scouts and local recruiting reporters, whom I chatted with Sunday morning at the Under Armour camp before I had a chance to speak with the recruits. This is a skeptical bunch, who would be quick to call BS and tell me that kids are just saying nice things during talking season and then signing elsewhere. But they believe.

And even more importantly, the recruits believe. Elite players.

They believe in Cory Patterson

Who?

Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson.

Previously seen leading St. Louis (MO) Trinity Catholic’s rebuilding project, culminating in an offense that averaged 55 points/game in 2017.

Previously seen in a shirt and tie, as an accountant for A.G. Edwards and Bank of America.

And always seen coaching youth football in some of St. Louis’ toughest areas.

For years, it was common to see high school coaches be hired on to a support staff position at a college , especially when said HS coach was associated with an elite recruit or program. But in 2017, the NCAA changed the rule, making it so that a college could not have recruited a high school for two years before or after hiring one of its coaches hiring a high school coach, unless the college is willing to hire the high school coach into one of its 10 on-field assistant coaching positions.

Those spots are precious, and so far, teams have been extremely reluctant to do it. It was far easier to create a support staff position and have the high school coach work there.

But Illinois is desperate. It doesn’t have the talent to compete in the Big Ten. If it doesn’t get an infusion of talent, Smith and his staff won’t be around. And so it took a calculated risk and hired Patterson directly onto its coaching staff, ensuring it would still be allowed to recruit Trinity Catholic. Illinois fans were calling for the move.

“I got a chance to see him mentor, teach, on and off the football field,” Smith said. “I knew then that if someday we did have an opportunity to add him to our staff, I was going to do everything possible to make sure that happened.”

Smith knew what he was doing. Illinois had already offered 10 players on the Trinity team alone.

He also knew what I learned Sunday: Patterson has deep, long-held bonds with prep stars in St. Louis.

Almost immediately, the move paid off in a commitment from athlete Isaiah Williams, a 5’10 five-star recruit whom seemingly every school wants as an elite a slot receiver, but to whom Illinois is promising a shot to continue playing QB, just as he did for Patterson at Trinity.

A month later, Trinity three-star slot receiver Bryce Childress joined on.

“Coach Patterson has been like a father figure for me since I was 6,” Williams told Illini Inquirer. “I stayed with him from time to time. He got me into schools.”

Many players echoed those sentiments. There’s a trust in Patterson, sometimes formed over a decade or more, that just doesn’t exist between the players and other recruiters.

“They jump out at you. They have that strong bond, they make you feel comfortable,” four-star linebacker Shammond Cooper, who has Oklahoma and Illinois standing out, said. “They’re appealing to the top guys to change the program around. Do something different. Be someone people will remember for a while.

“When [Illinois hired him], I didn’t want to see him go, but then I was happy for him. He did a lot for us, and he’ll make in two years what he’d make in 10 years at our school.”

“It’s been crazy. That #IllGang19 stuff started, and all these top guys put it out, and it’s like whoa, they got something going,” Cooper said.

Patterson also has a great connection with prospects outside of Trinity Catholic.

“Illinois is like family to me,” said 2020 Trinity running back Mookie Cooper (no relation to Shammond), whom Patterson coached in youth football. “It’s making a lot of us lean towards going there. I don’t know about all of us going to Illinois, but most definitely most of us, it could happen. It’s like a family bond now.”

“It has a great impact on my recruiting,” four-star Chicago tight end Jahleel Billingsley, who showed up to the camp in an Illini track suit, said. “Before Coach Patterson got to Trinity, they weren’t winning. If he can turn Trinity around, why not Illinois? He wants me to come in and be a game-changer immediately.”

Billingsley also credited Illinois running back coach Thad Ward, the creator of the “#littyvILLe” and “#IllGang19” hashtags. #littyvILLe t-shirts can be seen around Chicago (I saw several at a Chick-Fil-A located 100 miles North of Champaign).

“[Patterson] is a good guy,” said rising receiver C.J. Boone of St. Louis Parkway HS, who never played for Patterson. “He’d pop up around workouts before he got hired at Illinois. You just see him around the community. He’s someone we trust, even for kids that didn’t go to Trinity.”

“Coach Patterson and I go way back. That’s like my cousin,” said defensive end Arvell Ferguson, of St. Louis Kirkwood HS. “He was my JFL (Junior Football League) coach, and we have been talking a lot.”

“I think it’s going to change a lot,” Ferguson said of the Patterson hire. “He’s done it before in high schools, and his knowledge will change a lot for Illinois.”

Will it work? Not if Illinois doesn’t improve on the field.

Big Ten fans can be excused for rolling their eyes at “The Movement.”

In 2015, Maryland had a bunch of elite recruits in the Metro-DC area convinced to stay home, including QB Dwayne Haskins. They called it “The Movement.” Maryland was selling branding, early playing time, and the ability to make a hometown legacy. The Terps were on pace to sign their best class ever. Sound familiar?

The Terrapins were coming off back-to-back winning seasons following a 2-10 and 4-8 campaign, and seemed poised to take the next step. But Maryland insiders knew just making a bowl in 2015 would be a big accomplishment.

The Terps, suffering through some injuries, went 3-9, losing games by 21, 39, 28, 21, and 16 points before Halloween. Haskins and the other good players bolted, and coach Randy Edsall was fired. Movement halted. Maryland is still digging out of the talent deficit.

If Illinois has another bad season, all of this could fall apart. Early Las Vegas odds have Illinois’ projected win total at just 3.5 regular-season victories. Overachievement will be necessary.

“We need to take another step on the football field,” Ward said. “This year. It’s imperative. We understand the urgency.”

Recruits are saying the same thing.

Not every elite prospect, even from Trinity, is buying in. Chief amongst that group is is star receiver Marcus Washington. Nobody I spoke with thinks Washington going to Illinois.

“They have to show something,” Washington, who plans to have Ohio State and Florida State on his final list, said of Illinois. “They have to win some games and send some people to the league. The NFL is everything. It’s my goal. I have to go to a school that’s going to get me there.” Washington said Sunday that Ohio State and Florida State are the two schools he knows will be on his final list.

“They gotta be somewhat decent, where we can go somewhere and change things around. I don’t want to go to a program that’s dead, can’t get out the water. I have to see improvement, but I see potential,” Shammond Cooper said. “They have to have a decent season, win like five games, show some potential against the big teams like Ohio State. I don’t want to see them getting 60-balled. I’d give it a 50-50 chance that Illinois sweeps all of us.”