CHAMPAIGN — Malachi Hood had already envisioned what path he would take.
"I started playing (football) when I was 6 years old, but I was pretty on and off. I thought I was a hooper, thought I'd play basketball for some years, but that didn't really last long," Hood said, laughing. "It was like eighth grade when I had to look in the mirror and be like, 'Is this really for me?' and that's when I switched to football. When high school came around, I had the athleticism but I was still raw, so I got a trainer, honed my craft, and I think I made the right choice."
In the few years since Hood traded in the court for the field, the result speaks for itself. He has emerged as a star linebacker at in-state Joliet Catholic with interest from a number of Division I schools.
One program has risen above the rest: Illinois.
Hood had been in contact with college coaches for several months but still couldn't reel in a D-I offer. That quickly changed when the NCAA finally lifted its COVID-19-induced recruiting dead period at midnight June 1, allowing in-person recruitment to resume. Ten hours later, Hood was in Champaign going through a "combine-style workout" for first-year Illini coach Bret Bielema and linebackers coach Andy Buh.
Hood returned to campus for an official visit Saturday, and when the coaching staff presented him with his first D-I offer at the end, the junior verbally committed on the spot.
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"I just told (Bielema) right then and there, 'Let's lock it in,'" Hood said.
Hood shared his decision publicly via social media Monday, becoming Illinois' fifth in-state recruit and the ninth commit overall for the Class of 2022.
"(Committing) was a huge relief. I've been talking to a lot of schools since last September, and I was just waiting for one to take a chance on me," Hood said. " ... I came into the week with no offers, and I was wondering if I was even going to go D-I. I'm just happy and blessed that they believe in me."
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior is rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports and will continue his career alongside high school teammate and fellow junior Jordan Anderson, who verbally committed to the Illini in April. Anderson is rated as a three-star running back and the No. 20 overall prospect in the state by 247Sports.
Hood said Anderson's commitment was yet another factor that tipped the scales in Illinois' favor. The linebacker had also been in serious talks with Northwestern and Tennessee.
"(Anderson) was in my ear about (choosing Illinois) for about the last two months," Hood said. "He knew I was talking to coach Buh, and he knew I was on their board. He was like, 'When you get the offer, you're going to commit. You're going to get it, so you better come.' Obviously, it was a joke, until it wasn't. So as soon as I got (the offer), he was super, super excited."
Hood looks forward to his last season of high school football before carrying on his family's tradition in Champaign. His mother, Josephine, older brother, Michael, and uncle, Marcus, are all Illinois graduates, and Marcus was a linebacker for the Illini as well from 1996-1999.
As the next stage of his career creeps closer, Hood said he is eager to give Illinois "everything he has."
"It really is a dream come true. It's been my goal for a long time (to play D-I football), but I'm not going to let this be the mountain top," Hood said. "I still have a lot of work to do, but I'm still in awe. I don't think it's all fully processed yet. It's been a crazy week."
🏈 16 NFL stars with Illini roots
Geronimo Allison // WR
James Crawford // LB
Clayton Fejeldem // SAF
Josh Ferguson // RB
Justin Hardee // DB
Michael Hoomanawanui // TE
Ted Karras // OG
Matt LaCosse // TE
Corey Liuget // DE
Whitney Mercilus // DE
Hardy Nickerson Jr. // LB
Carroll Phillips // DE
Dawuane Smoot // DE
Akeem Spence // DT
Jihad Ward // DE
Tavon Wilson // FS
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