Three-Point Stance: NFL talent in Illinois & Michigan, Big Ten bets, more
Rivals national recruiting analyst Clint Cosgrove has thoughts on the NFL-caliber talent that is coming out of Illinois and Michigan, a few Big Ten over/under wagers to consider and Group of Five commits from the Midwest who could become Power Five targets.
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1. Illinois and Michigan are quietly becoming fertile states for NFL talent.
Unsurprisingly, the top four states in terms of producing NFL talent in the 2023 draft were Florida with 36 players selected, Texas with 30, Georgia with 23 and California with 21. These also happen to be the states that continuously produce the most Rivals250 talent.
Things get interesting when you get to the No. 5 and No. 6 states for production of NFL talent in 2023, as those spots went to Illinois with 12 players drafted and Michigan with 11. This is a big change from the 2022 draft, where this year's top four plus Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina and Missouri all finished above Illinois and Michigan when it came to producing draft picks.
The interesting part about it all is that of the 12 draft picks who played their high school football in Illinois, only two of them – Peter Skoronski and Antonio Johnson – were four-star players. The rest of the group were rated as two- and three-star players, with Aidan O'Connell having zero stars coming out of high school. Michigan's draft picks were made up of two four-stars in Anthony Bradford and Mazi Smith with the rest being two- and three-star players. Three had no stars at all, but two were specialists.
So, is this a one off? Or are Illinois and Michigan beginning to produce more elite talent than in the past? My answer would be the latter. The Midwest is known for producing undervalued talent that is often raw coming out of high school, so although many of these players outplayed their rating in the long run, many of them were projections with upside at best coming out of high school. There has been a recent change with highly rated talent coming from both Illinois and Michigan, however, and when you combine that with the high amount of lower-ranked raw talent that will likely continue making its way to the NFL, the trend of Illinois and Michigan producing a high number of draft picks could be here to stay for years to come.
2. Over/Under wagers in the Big Ten that I like.
Illinois over 6.5: Yes, Illinois lost key playmakers to the draft, but the cupboard is not bare, and I absolutely love what Bret Bielema and his staff are building in Champaign. The Illini overachieved in every sense of the word by going from a team projected to finish toward the bottom of the Big Ten to one that was a couple plays away from going to the Big Ten championship game. The defense may take a step back with a new coordinator and new players in the lineup, but I still see the defense as being a strength heading into the season and I love the amount of playmakers Illinois has assembled at the skill positions on offense. When you combine the coaching, defense and skill, and then look at the schedule, I see a path to seven wins as being very achievable.
Iowa over 7.5: Over the past 10 seasons Iowa has only failed to win fewer than eight games twice and one season came during a 2020 Covid year in which the Hawkeyes went 6-2. While Iowa may not compete for a national title year in and year out, the one thing it does is put a quality product on the field on a yearly basis, and winning eight games or more is the norm and not an exception to the rule. Led by Cooper DeJean and a plethora of young talent with NFL futures, the defense should be lights out. On offense, transfer quarterback Cade McNamara is an instant upgrade and may prove to be the savior at a position that has been an area of concern in recent years for the Hawkeyes. I also love sophomore running back Kaleb Johnson, who showed flashes of greatness during his freshman campaign. Not only is the path to eight or more wins achievable, I would be shocked if Iowa doesn't win at least eight.
Purdue under 5: I think this one could go either way as I love the buzz surrounding the Purdue program under first-year head coach Ryan Walters, and the staff he has assembled looks to be phenomenal. In addition to that, the Boilermakers were able to sign quarterback Hudson Card from Texas in the transfer portal, and I see him as a player who has a chance to be a difference-maker in the Big Ten. While Purdue could surprise – and I would not put it past the Boilermakers to do so – the schedule, combined with losing key playmakers Aidan O'Connell and Charlie Jones and adding a new coaching staff, leads me to believe getting more than five wins could be a difficult task in year one.
3. Midwest Group of Five commits who could become Power Five targets.
Ball may not check all of the boxes from a physical standpoint as he is a little shorter, but he has a very solid frame and can flat out fly – he has run sub-11 seconds in the 100 meters while also jumping close to 23 feet in the long jump. He seems to be the perfect fit for a Tulane offense that has been churning out running backs, so there is a chance that Ball could stick with his commitment even if a handful of Power Five schools pursue him late. But I see him as a player who could be a weapon if used correctly at the Power Five level.
At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Kamara has the prototypical size of a big-time safety who could potentially grow into an outside linebacker, which makes him even more valuable. He is an athlete in every sense of the word, with the ability to play man coverage along with a ton of range as a safety. Then you look at the speed in which he plays the game and his ability to play the run, as well as come off the edge as an extra rusher, and there is too much to like about him for Power Five schools not to try and flip him. Kamara's ceiling is very high and his recruitment will likely reflect that as we get closer to signing day.
Listed as an athlete recruit, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Smith is a versatile player capable of making an impact at multiple positions on both sides of the ball at the next level. In addition to his versatility, he combines his plus frame with a nice level of athleticism and a hard-nosed physical brand of football. He moves well at his size, and I love what I have seen from him on defense.
I am equally impressed with his ability to both catch the ball and block as a tight end. Recruits with his physical and athletic gifts – plus his love of the game – don't grow on trees, and he is a recruit who I could see Power Five schools targeting as the recruiting process continues.