CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois is hoping Braggin’ Rights weekend can be a clean sweep for football and men’s basketball.
Football did its part on Friday.
Verdis Brown, a 4-star lineman from Chicago who played his senior season at the IMG Academy football factory in Bradenton, Fla., sorted through more than 20 scholarship offers that included the likes of Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma, UCLA and Wisconsin.
He decided two of those schools made the most sense — Illinois and Missouri. And from the stage at a Chicago elementary school, he picked the Illini.
“I had options to go to schools that had already built,” he said during his announcement on Friday. “But I wanted my state to have a chance to compete for bowl games and championships.”
Brown becomes the centerpiece of coach Lovie Smith’s 2018 recruiting class. The 18 players took advantage of the NCAA’s first-ever early signing period. Brown was the last to sign and Smith’s Friday afternoon news conference was delayed a few minutes until he had the signed national letter of intent in his hands.
“We’ve been recruiting him for over a year, trying to convince him to come aboard,” Smith said. “We’re very excited about getting him.”
Brown has often been listed as an offensive lineman but Smith said the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder will start out on the defensive line.
“As a general rule, and not just because I’m a defensive coach, when you have an athlete like that, the first place you look is on the defensive side of the ball,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of options for a player like him.”
Brown originally committed to Florida State, but decommitted when head coach Jimbo Fisher resigned to take over at Texas A&M.
Illinois hit the state of Florida hard. If Brown counts as a high school recruit from Florida, 11 of the 18 recruits to sign by Friday are from Florida with three others from Texas.
Just two of the players are from Illinois and none from Chicago, unless Brown, who played his first three seasons at Chicago Morgan Park High School, is counted as a home state recruit.
The addition of Brown jumped Illinois’ national recruiting class ranking to 58th, up from 64th before he signed. That’s still near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference.
Smith said that does not concern him and he pointed to last season’s better-than-expected recruiting class as evidence that rankings don’t matter.
“You have to make your own evaluations,” Smith said, indicating that his coaching staff put a higher grade on some players than the recruiting services did. “You can’t trust someone else’s evaluation. That’s what we do for a living. We should know exactly what we’re looking for.
“Everyone we signed, we felt like they can be a star. That’s how we look at the star system.”
Another highly ranked recruit is also a defensive lineman, Calvin Avery from Dallas. He also had a number of high profile scholarship offers from schools such as Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas, Southern California and Texas A&M.
He is joined in this class by his Dallas Bishop Dunne High School teammate, 330-pound offensive lineman Kievan Myers.
The class includes just one quarterback although Peoria’s Coran Taylor could sign during the February signing period. Smith said Illinois has five or six scholarships available for late signings or transfers.
The quarterback included in Friday’s class was MJ Rivers from Lone Star High School in Frisco, Texas. He’s a 6-4, 215-pounder who passed for 2,611 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 950 yards as a senior. He’s the son of former NFL tight end Marcellus Rivers.
The class includes a fifth-year graduate transfer, wide receiver Shaedon Meadors, who missed the 2017 season at Appalachian State with an injury but had 82 receptions for 1,442 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior.
It also includes cornerback Nick Walker, who played his high school ball in St. Louis and is transferring from Cisco College (Texas).
Four players will enroll in January and be eligible for spring practice, which will begin the first week in March. Those early enrollees are Walker, Brown, offensive lineman Reuben Unije and running back Jakari Norwood from Deerfield Beach, Fla.