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Bret Bielema’s next challenge: Sign an in-state blue chip recruit



Can Bret Bielema compete in recruiting for blue-chippers in Illinois?

Bielema and the Fighting Illini are building something in Champaign. Illinois has gotten better every season under the former Wisconsin head coach. However, the critical question that he and everyone involved with the football program must answer is, “How good do we want to be?” For the Illini to run at max capacity, they must keep a blue-chip recruit in the state. Since 2020, the Illini have signed 12 top 25 recruits in the state.

Bielema has signed 11 of those twelve in the last two cycles, which is encouraging. The Illini did not sign any of the top 25 players in 2020. However, the numbers are tricky because Illinois does not produce top 150-level players in mass. For example, the state produced three in 2020, one in 2021, four in 2022, one this year, and three in 2024, according to Although Bielema has signed more of the top players in the state, none are top 150 players.

Malik Elzy is the highest-ranked prospect the staff has signed (225) under Bielema. Illinois recruiting is not all doom and gloom. The Illini hasn’t recruited this well since the Ron Zook era. One of the more encouraging signs is Bielema’s ability to improve recruiting in the Chicagoland area, specifically the City of Chicago and Cook County. One of the major criticisms of the Lovie Smith regime was their lack of desire to recruit Chicago and its suburbs. Bielema has rebuilt many of those bridges.

Challenges on the trail for Illinois

In Bielema’s defense, keeping recruits in-state has become increasingly more difficult because of national recruiting. It’s one thing to compete with Big Ten rivals and Notre Dame for recruits, but the Illini now have to compete with Alabama, Clemson, Texas A&M, and Miami. That complicates matters for Bielema and his staff. However, the most essential thing that Bielema has started doing is winning.

Players will be more apt to take visits and sign with Illinois as they win more. It is interesting to see what the Illini are offering regarding NIL. Illinois is beginning to beat out Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State, and other mid-tier Big Ten teams for players. The next step is to beat out Wisconsin and Iowa for players in Illinois.

Armchair Illini is a comprehensive site dedicated to covering University of Illinois Athletics owned and operated by Alex Kyi. Dante Pryor has been writing about College Football for years on Saturday Blitz and is now the Lead Football Author for Armchair Illini.