Rebuilding a college football program usually takes time. One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is convincing high school prospects that things will get better with their help.
Coach Lovie Smith is walking that walk right now, and he’s finding players who are buying his talk.
A few days ago, the Illini added a verbal commitment from running back Ra’Von Bonner. The Ohio product became the 12th known member of Illinois’ 2017 recruiting class.
Smith and running backs coach Thad Ward led the team’s pursuit of Bonner (6-0, 210). They won over the Cincinnati Sycamore High standout.
“The coaches were the main reason I chose Illinois. It also felt like home,” Bonner told Today’s U. “Coach Lovie is an amazing man. He’s gonna turn things around. Coach Ward is really great and has a great vision for the program.”
Smith took over an Illini program that last enjoyed a winning record in 2011, and that was 7-6. The Illini haven’t won eight games in a season since posting a 9-4 mark in 2007.
The talent in Champaign has fallen off in recent years, but recruits such as Bonner could help change that.
“I feel like I’m a good fit for the offense. I’m an every-down back and I can control the game,” he said.
Bonner also reported scholarship offers from Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Ohio, Toledo and Western Michigan. Michigan State and other Big Ten schools were showing him interest.
“After Illinois, I considered Cincinnati the most,” Bonner said of his hometown school.
As a junior, Bonner rushed 267 times for 1,429 yards and a 28 touchdowns. He put up 1,120 and 16 during his sophomore campaign. He’s continued rumbling forward on ’16.
Despite his impassive statistics against strong competition, Illinois was the only Big Ten school to step forward with an offer. That was fine with Bonner.
“I’m always just motivated to get better whether one or all of the Big Ten schools wanted me,” he said.
Bonner said he would be going into the ministry after his sports career is over and plans to work towards that goal during his studies at Illinois.
Illinois has picked up two commitments from running backs in the 2017 class. Mike Epstein from Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, a national power, jumped on board in early August.
The Illini picked up a pledge from Chicago Heights Marian Catholic quarterback Cameron Thomas in May. They have commitments from four wide receivers – Tony Adams (St. Louis), Kendall Smith (Illinois), Ricky Smalling (Illinois) and Carmoni Green (Miami). An upgrade at the skill positions was much needed in this cycle.
The 247 composite shows Bonner as a three-star prospect, the No. 96 running back nationally in 2017 and the No. 57 player in Ohio regardless of position.
Illinois’ 2017 class currently is ranked 11th among 14 Big Ten teams and 55th nationally, according to 247. Rivals and Scout both list the Illini as 12th in the conference. Ohio State sits atop the league per all three services at this time.