Illini Welcome 2024 Class On Early National Signing Day

By Matt Stevens, IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst, Kedric Prince, IlliniGuys Director of Recruiting, and Brad Sturdy, IlliniGuys Insider/Analyst & Co-Host, IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

December 20, 2023

Bret Bielema and the Fighting Illini football staff have a full day, working the phones and watching the fax machine for signed National Letters of Intent as they lock in the next wave of Illini football players.

Here are the newest players donning Orange and Blue next season:

 

AJ Dennis courtesy player page on X

Player: Andrew Dennis

Position: Offensive Guard

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: 275

Hometown: Mount Pleasant, Mich.

High School: Mt. Pleasant

Other offers: Clemson, Michigan State, Penn State, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Louisville, Missouri, Nebraska, and Purdue.

 

Without being able to name him personally, the day after Andrew “AJ” Dennis verbally committed to Illinois at the end of last month, Illini head coach Bret Bielema said to local media that he has been experiencing a change the likes of which his program hasn’t seen in two previous recruiting classes. While Dennis doesn’t play a premier offensive position, his choice to bring his four-star reputation to Illinois when his recruitment was getting heavy with power programs over the course of this fall symbolizes arguably the most important offensive line signee in the Bielema era in Champaign.

 

Photo courtesy Columbus Dispatch

Player: Angelo McCullom

Position: Defensive Line

Height: 6-foot-3

Weight: 260

Hometown: Lewis Center, Ohio

High School: Pickerington North

Other offers: Indiana, Akron, Toledo, Pittsburgh, and Western Michigan.

 

McCullom committed to Illinois in late April when Illini defensive line coach Terrance Jamison made him a priority early in his school career after McCullom played in just five games in 2022 at Pickerington North High School. It appears the scouting evaluation may be as an underrated mystery for the Illinois program as McCullom exploded in his senior season with 12 sacks in 13 games that also included 25 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries.

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Demetrius John

Position: Defensive Line 

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: 250

Hometown: Westerville, Ohio

High School: Dublin Coffman

Other offers: Akron, Ball State, Boston College, Indiana, Michigan State, and West Virginia.

 

Demetrius John will arrive in Champaign this spring. On film John was a steal for the Illini, he's big, has unbelievable footwork, and a great upside. This appears to be the one player schools missed out on. He could potentially turn into an All-Big Ten prospect. Illinois needs help on the defensive line, in the future, John should provide that. Defensive line coach Terrance Jamison saw John's speed, and technique was all he needed to see. Keep an out for this recruit.

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Vernon Woodward

Position: Cornerback

Height: 6-foot-2

Weight: 180

Hometown: Winter Park, Fla.

High School: Winter Park

Other offers: UCF, Wisconsin, Boston College, Cincinnati, Florida Atlantic, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Maryland, Missouri, Ole Miss, Purdue, and Virginia.

 

Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry produced a neat trick with Woodward’s recruitment here because he convinced a prospect near his hometown in Florida to renounce a verbal pledge to his alma mater (Wisconsin) and stay loyal to an Illini program that struggled throughout the 2023 season amidst a youthful and inexperienced secondary. Woodward is a physical and highly active cornerback that could be in line to compete for playing time right away after he enrolls a month from now so he can be eligible for spring practices.

 

Photo courtesy player Hudl page.

Player: Zafir Stewart

Position: Offensive Tackle

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: 320

Hometown: Philadelphia

High School: Imhotep Inst. Charter School

Other offers: Boston College, Cincinnati, Nebraska, Maryland, Ole Miss, Penn State, Rutgers, and West Virginia.

 

Stewart committed to Illinois on June 12 and Illinois was able to withstand all of the power programs like new offensive staffs at Penn State, Nebraska circling back to Philadelphia to see a prospect they thought they could flip away from arriving in Champaign this coming summer. It didn’t happen because of the sell pitch that Miller and Illinois head coach Bret Bielema made by promising a possible NFL opportunity similar to how Vederian Lowe, Doug Kramer, Alex Palczewski, Isaiah Adams and Julian Pearl have gotten or are about to receive in the coming months since Bielema’s arrival inside the Smith Family Football Complex.

Earlier this month, Stewart’s Imhotep Charter School, which finished 15-0, won the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 5A state championship.

 

Photo courtesy Knoxville News-Sentinel

Player: Carlos Orr

Position: Wide Receiver

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 185

Hometown: Gatlinburg, Tenn.

High School: Gatlinburg Pittman

Other offers: Austin Peay, Buffalo, East Carolina, Toledo, Miami (Ohio), and Western Michigan.

 

The plan for Orr is to enroll at Illinois in June and will be making his first appearance on the Memorial Stadium field when preseason camp opens in August. Orr will be on a long-term plan to learn and develop at one of the outside receiver positions in a similar path of third year sophomore-to-be Ashton Hollins. Illinois was the only power program to offer Orr and but this signing has to be considered a scouting assessment from Illini wide receivers coach George McDonald - who typically isn’t fond of giving freshmen early playing time.

 

Photo courtesy player Hudl page

Player:  Amar Reynolds

Position: Cornerback

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 175

Hometown: Vero Beach, Fla.

High School: Vero Beach

Other offers: Charlotte, Florida A&M, Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee State.

 

 

The combination of Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry and Illini cornerbacks coach Antonio Fenelus hit Florida once again for a prospect who played at three different high schools in his prep career. Reynolds needed just one day after his only official visit in the process to buy into the Henry-Fenelus pitch and in a similar way, the Illini secondary coach duo only needed a small amount of tape to notice the speed and quickness in Reynolds’ game after being turned on to his recruitment after Illinois signed tight end Nathan Guinn from Vero Beach in last year’s recruiting haul.

 

Photo courtesy player Hudl page

Player: Brandon Hansen

Position: Offensive Tackle

Height: 6-foot-6

Weight: 290

Hometown: Mundelein, Ill.

High School: Mundelein

Other offers: Wisconsin, Toledo, and Central Michigan.

 

 

Hansen was the program’s first verbal pledge of the 2024 class when Hansen gave his commitment in Nov. 2022. How much does third-year Illini head coach Bret Bielema think of the in-state offensive tackle prospect? While standing on the sidelines at Starkville High School two months ago while watching 2024 quarterback commit Trey Petty, Bielema was telling multiple fans that Hansen was a prospect who would instantly have Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State offers if he decided to drop Illinois and re-open his recruitment. Bielema believes keeping Hansen in this class as a retainment was just as important as any flip you’ll hear about throughout the day of activity.

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Chase Canada

Position: Cornerback

Height: 6-foot-0

Weight: 185

Hometown: Richmond, Texas

High School: Foster

Transfer School: Trinity Valley C.C.

Other offers: Charlotte, UConn and Georgia Southern.

 

Canada took the same path as his older brother, TCU cornerback Channing Canada, as they both went through the junior college ranks to end up signing with a power program. Canada was sold on Illinois’ ability to develop cornerbacks and defensive backs into the National Football League with four Illini secondary members being drafted among the top 100 picks of the draft including Devon Witherspoon (No. 5 in 2023), Jartavius Martin (No. 47 in 2023), Sydney Brown (No. 66 in 2023) and Kerby Joseph (No. 97 in 2022).

 

Player: Mario Sanders

Position: Wide Receiver 

Height: 5-foot-10

Weight: 190

Hometown: Minneapolis

High School:

Transfer: Iowa Central C.C.

Other offers: Eastern Kentucky, Northern Iowa, Sam Houston State, and Utah State.

 

Sanders was a 1st team All American JUCO product from Iowa Central CC, who was originally from Minnesota. The 3-star receiver fits in the slot to pair with Hank Beatty to help Illinois replace the production they lose with Isaiah Williams.

Sanders isn’t a burner, but like Williams he has great quickness and the ability to create space between him and his defender. He also does a nice job of catching the ball with his hands and should be a player that will get immediate playing time next fall. Sanders is also a grinder, having battled through JUCO ball and a redshirt year after lacking offers out of high school, which will help him as he competes for playing time. 

 

Courtesy player X page

Player: Daniel Brown

Position: Defensive Edge

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 240

Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.

High School: Bishop Ward

Transfer School: Hutchinson C.C.

Other offers: Alabama State, Buffalo, and Alcorn State.

 

Brown was named a Junior College All-America selection this week after he produced a season at Hutchinson Community College that included leading all National Junior College Athletics Association players in sacks with 18.0 sacks in 11 games — five more sacks than the next highest player. A Kansas City (Mo.) native, Brown has two years of eligibility remaining and will be slotted as a potential impact junior for first-year position coach Charlie Bullen.

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Trey Petty

Position: Quarterback

Height: 6-foot-0

Weight: 200

Hometown: Starkville, Miss.

High School: Starkville

Other offers: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Indiana, San Diego State, Southern Miss and Tulsa.

 

Starkville High School quarterback was named to the Mr. Football selection for Class 7A by the Mississippi High School Activities Association as he finished the 2023 regular season with 1,766 passing yards and 16 passing touchdowns. In addition, Petty rushed for an average of 12.3 yards per carry for a total of 728 rushing yards and seven scores. Petty is the highest profile quarterback signee since Illini offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. has arrived in Champaign and will make it back-to-back Starkville High signal callers wearing orange and blue as he’s following Luke Altmyer.

 

Photo courtesy Shaw Media

Player: Eddie Tuerk

Position: Defensive Line 

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 255

Hometown: La Grange, Ill.

High School: Lyons Township

Other offers: Northwestern, Cincinnati, Duke, Iowa, Kansas State, Louisville, Miami, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ole Miss and Wisconsin.

 

Eddie Tuerk committed to the Fighting Illini in early June 2023. Landing Tuerk was big for head coach Bret Bielema as he continues to recruit the state of Illinois hard, especially the Chicago land area. Tuerk told the IlliniGuys in September he's played both sides of the ball but in college, the offensive side might be where he lands. Tuerk will enroll at Illinois this spring.

 

Photo courtesy player Hudl page

Player: Tanner Hollinger

Position: Tight End

Height: 6-foot-5

Weight: 235

Hometown: Stromsburg, Neb.

High School: Cross County

Other offers: Air Force, Brown, Colgate, Northern Iowa, Yale and UAB.

 

 

Hollinger was another summer commitment that chose the Illini over mostly Ivy and MAC schools. He plays 8-man football in Nebraska and grew up a Husker fan, but the Illini were his first Power 5 offer and he jumped on it.

At 6’5", the 3-star tight end has a nice frame and weighs 230 pounds. His length and athleticism is noticeable on film, but he will obviously need to get bigger and stronger and adjust to the competition level. He is expected to enroll in June, so he will miss that valuable spring work and is likely a redshirt candidate with a very nice upside. Tight Ends coach Robby Discher went into the state of Nebraska and grabbed this prospect. 

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Tysean Griffin

Position: WR

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 165

Hometown: Chicago

High School: Morgan Park

Other offers: Arkansas, Boston College, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan State, Missouri, Purdue and Wisconsin.

 

Griffin’s athleticism is what instantly brings him to Illinois  which was shown in two summers when he participated in the Illini’s showcase camps, will be how Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. uses Griffin's skills as he rushed for 433 yards and three touchdowns as a junior and caught 10 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Griffin’s senior season was marred by early injuries but he had 15.4 yards per reception and four total touchdowns as Morgan Park won the Chicago Public League and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class 5A of Illinois High School Association playoffs. Griffin has stated on social media that it is his intention to enroll in January and be eligible for spring practices in April.

 

Player: Easton Baker

Position: Linebacker

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 215

Hometown: Tooele, Utah

High School: Stansbury

Other offers: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Utah Tech, and Arizona State.

 

Baker is on pace to become the first University of Illinois football player from the state of Utah to earn a letter since Samuel Doxey played center for the Illini in 1891.

Nearly two and a half years ago, Baker committed to Brigham Young after his ninth grade football season but as he became a high school upperclassmen the 215-pound linebacker received offers from Miami (Fla.), Oklahoma, Nebraska, USC, Oregon, Utah. And then Illinois linebacker coach Andy Buh made his pitch and Baker loved what he heard. Baker earned all-state honors in his final two seasons at Stansbury High School and finished his junior season with 83 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Ca'lil Valentine

Position: Running Back

Height: 6-foot-0

Weight: 180 

Hometown: Chandler, Ariz.

High School: Chandler

Other offers: Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, Auburn, and Boston College.

 

The four-star running back will enroll this summer, he told IlliniGuys.com. Valentine is a speedy back when he was on campus this fall, he mentioned playing alongside sophomore-to-be Kaden Feagin and felt they would make a great tandem. With Reggie Love transferring, there's a chance Valentine could see the field early in his career. He rushed for over 3,000 yards, scoring 42 touchdowns this past season for Chandler.

 

Photo courtesy player Hudl page.

Player: Josaiah Knight

Position: Edge

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 230

Hometown: Tallahassee, Fla.

High School: Gadsden County

Other offers: Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, Maryland, Missouri, Purdue, and Vanderbilt.

 

 

Josaiah Knight is an outstanding high school Edge prospect, he plans to arrive on campus and start classes in January. With his size at 6-foot-4 and speed, there's a slight chance the staff may play the freshman early if he can help the defense. Playing a true freshman early is not ideal, especially on defense, but this one could get a good look from Defensive Coordinator Aaron Henry. For Gadsen County high school this season he had 36 tackles to go along with 3 sacks. His talent to play linebacker is ideal.

 

Photo courtesy player page on X

Player: Joe Barna

Position: Defensive Line 

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 240

Hometown: Wheaton, Ill.

High School: Wheaton North

Other offers: Wisconsin, Ball State, Iowa State, and Kansas.

 

When Joe Barna committed in June the Illini had pulled off a coup, beating Wisconsin, Iowa State, Purdue, Kansas and others for the 3-star defensive linemen. Barna has a relentless motor and uses his hands well to get after the quarterback.

He is an early enrollee in January, which will help him as he develops his body. He has increased his weight to around 260 now, but will need to keep the flexibility and explosion that he had at 240 if he is going to stay on the edge. He has the frame to bulk up to 280 as well and play more inside, and Illinois will have to decide where he fits best. This is an excellent recruiting win for Charlie Bullen and a top 30 in-state product for the Illini. 

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