Inside Wisconsin’s recruiting success in Illinois and what it means for the future

When Bret Bielema was hired as the Illinois football coach before last season, his strategy to construct a roster began with the same basic principle he followed during his time previously as Wisconsin’s coach: Attack his own state hard in recruiting to ensure as many good players as possible stay home and continue to build from within.

“I think Illinois has to be great with Illinois players,” Bielema told The Athletic in May. “So that’s a priority for us. It’s on a daily living process that we, whether it’s in the high school world or it’s in the transfer world, the grad transfer world, if somebody is from the state of Illinois and they can help us win a Big Ten championship, we want them here. For a long time, they’ve gone to other places. For us, we’ve really begun to change the narrative, so that’s our driving force.”

Bielema, by all accounts, has done an excellent job of spanning state high schools to enhance the Illini roster in a talent-rich area that generates plenty of recruiting competition from other college programs. But, in an interesting twist, it appears he has a new albeit familiar program to contend with for some of those top prospects. That’s because Wisconsin is thriving in the state of Illinois like it hasn’t for decades.

As it stands, Wisconsin has garnered commitments from five prospects in the 2023 recruiting class who hail from Illinois — the same number of Illinois commitments the Illini have received for 2023. It marks the highest number of Illinois commitments for Wisconsin since 2000 when the Badgers last signed five players from the state. Wisconsin signed just one Illinois prospect in each of the previous six recruiting classes, from 2017 through 2022.

Wisconsin has earned commitments from inside linebacker Tyler Jansey (Batavia), safety Justin Taylor (La Grange Park), defensive lineman Roderick Pierce (Oak Lawn), defensive lineman Jamel Howard (Chicago) and offensive lineman Christopher Terek (Glen Ellyn). And the Badgers are heavily in the mix for a sixth Illinois prospect — cornerback Khalil Tate (Chicago), whose top two schools are Wisconsin and Iowa.

Of the five Badgers commitments from Illinois, three had offers from the Illini: Pierce, Howard and Terek. Terek, the most recent commit in the bunch, took official visits to Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa before picking the Badgers.

“I think Wisconsin acts in a very professional manner,” said Casey Quedenfeld, Pierce’s coach at Brother Rice High School. “I think that they know that with Coach Bielema now at Illinois — and Illinois is doing a great job of recruiting Illinois rather than maybe some other coaches — I think that other Big Ten schools see that and they’re like, ‘OK, we need to get to Chicago so it’s never cut off from us ever again.’ It’s kudos to Coach Bielema. But I think Wisconsin sees what’s going on around them.”

How and why is Wisconsin finding recruiting success in Illinois and tapping into a new potential pipeline for the future? The Athletic spoke to players, as well as the coaches whose 2023 recruits have committed to Wisconsin, to better understand what could be an important shift in the Badgers’ approach.


Start with this: Wisconsin, which has prided itself on regularly retaining the best in-state prospects, encountered a dearth of top-level talent within its borders in the 2023 class. Over the previous seven recruiting classes, from 2016 through 2022, under head coach Paul Chryst, the Badgers offered scholarships to 51 in-state prospects — an average of more than seven per class. Now consider that Wisconsin has offered just one scholarship to an in-state prospect in the 2023 class. Running back Nate White (Milwaukee) committed to the Badgers in May.

Only three 2023 in-state players have earned at least one Power 5 offer — White, defensive lineman Will McDonald and offensive lineman Thomas Paasch. As a result, Wisconsin has been even more focused on identifying out-of-state players to fill its class, and Illinois has been critical in that area. According to the 247Sports database, there are 39 players from Illinois who have earned at least one Power 5 scholarship offer.

Wisconsin has offered scholarships to 11 of those players, the second-most offers by state in the class behind Texas (14). The last time Wisconsin offered more from Illinois was when the Badgers extended scholarships to 12 Illinois prospects in 2014 (Wisconsin’s lone commit from that group was future All-America inside linebacker T.J. Edwards).

The bulk of Wisconsin’s 2023 success in the state has come from the Chicago metropolitan area, a fertile ground given that it’s the third-most populous metropolitan area in the United States. All five commits from Illinois live within 45 miles of the city, with Jansey the farthest away in Batavia.

“There’s a ton of talent in Illinois and the Chicagoland,” said Dennis Piron, who has been a football coach at Batavia High for the past 33 years. “I think an awful lot of it gets overlooked and missed. And I think Wisconsin is doing a better job than most right now of attacking the best talent in the state, going and getting them.”

High school coaches suggested a couple of reasons why the Chicago area could be gaining more traction from Big Ten schools. Tim Racki, who is Taylor’s coach at Nazareth Academy, said the proliferation of 7-on-7 offseason football has enhanced the skill level of players during a time in which they might otherwise fall behind some warm-weather states. Taylor said he played a tournament previously for a program called BOOM, which is among the premier Midwest 7-on-7 squads and fields teams for several age groups.

Ron Dawczak, who coaches Howard at Marist High School, said the number of quality players in one area has made it easier for college coaches to evaluate prospects and determine whether they should extend scholarship offers. For example, Marist will play Terek’s Glenbard West team in the season opener in August. Two weeks later, Marist will play Taylor’s Nazareth Academy team. In the regular-season finale, Marist is set to take on Pierce’s team at Brother Rice. Dawczak said there are often multiple FBS-level players matching up against each other in the same game.

“It’s not like you’re some kid who looks great on film because you’re crushing a school that doesn’t have any dudes on it,” Racki said. “You’re not just seeing a high school kid that’s a man in high school playing against boys. It’s against good competition.”

Wisconsin utilized multiple staffers to build relationships with Illinois prospects in the 2023 class and was especially aggressive after recruiting opened back up following COVID-19 restrictions. When Bob Bostad was the Badgers inside linebackers coach, he served as the primary recruiter for Jansey, who became the first committed prospect overall in Wisconsin’s class.

Bostad then shifted over to coach the offensive line during the offseason and recruited Terek. Defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej recruited both Pierce and Howard. And outside linebackers coach Bobby April played a big role in initially identifying Taylor as a potential fit. Racki said April watched Taylor perform speed and weight room drills and was sold.

“His eyes popped open,” Racki said. “He said, ‘I’ve got to get back to the office.’ I was telling them they’ve got to come in and see this kid. He’s grown since the season. He’s ripped. He’s faster. And sure enough, Wisconsin said the same thing. They said, ‘Holy shit, coach. You’re right. Look at him.’ Wisconsin has always come around. But this year is the most I’ve seen them.”


Of course, identifying talent and doing enough to generate a commitment are different things. Three areas appear to have separated Wisconsin from the rest of the pack with its Illinois commitments, which could be vital for securing future players from the area: a straightforward recruiting approach, a winning tradition and the close proximity of the school itself.

“They were just so down to earth, very authentic and the culture is very rich,” said Taylor, who earned a Badgers offer in May and committed two days later. “Everything that they said they were going to do, they did. And I’m pretty sure they’re like that with everybody.

“A lot of us Chicago guys, we all know of each other. And if we don’t know of each other, we actually know each other. So we all talk. They’re very consistent and authentic with all of us. I’m very good friends with Jamel. I’m starting to develop a relationship with Tyler Jansey and also the other kids that have been recruited by Wisconsin in the Chicagoland area.

“They know that with Wisconsin, there’s no tricks, no gimmicks. They’re just very real. They’re very honest. They make sure they get to know the person, the family and also the head coaches and everybody that’s affiliated with them. That’s very important, especially to us athletes because it shows that they really care.”

Bielema has no doubt made a strong impression early in his tenure inside the state. He signed 11 Illinois players in the 2022 recruiting class. And although Bielema made strides in his first season at Illinois, helping the Illini defeat two top-25 programs in the same season for the first time in 20 years, the team also finished 5-7. The program hasn’t recorded a winning season since 2011.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, has qualified for a bowl game in 20 consecutive seasons and has played in five Big Ten championship games the past decade. Plus, Chryst has been in place for the last seven seasons, with defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard on the staff for the past six years.

Those elements matter for recruits when decision time arrives. They did for Wisconsin safety Austin Brown, a 2022 signee from Johnston City, Ill., who had Illinois in his top group and took an official visit to Champaign, Ill., before picking the Badgers.

“It was just really the fact that it’s a new coaching staff,” Brown said of Illinois. “I obviously didn’t know how things were going to go. That didn’t really scare me, but at the same time, Wisconsin is more established, especially with the coaches being there for a lot more years rather than being the first season. So I didn’t really want it to be like an experiment gone wrong. I didn’t want to get put in that situation.”

Dawczak said Howard liked Wisconsin for the same reason as Brown and was intrigued by the Badgers’ great tradition on defense. Wisconsin finished with the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation last season. Taylor didn’t have an Illinois offer but did earn offers from 18 schools, including Big 12 program Kansas State. He said part of Wisconsin’s recruiting message that appealed to him focused on its history of success, as well as its highly accomplished defense.

“As athletes, you want to win,” Taylor said. “That’s just the competitive nature of the game, especially in college football. You want to have that culture of winning and being successful. That’s definitely been a big part in their recruiting game as well, the fact that they win and they’re successful. They send guys to the league. And outside of football, the alumni system and the alumni network that they have is crazy. So that’s most definitely a big part of their recruiting game.”

Another reason Wisconsin has been able to successfully dip into Illinois, according to coaches, is that Madison is just far enough from home without being too far away — and not all that different in distance from Champaign, Ill. Howard’s high school is roughly 122 miles from Memorial Stadium and 162 miles from Camp Randall Stadium. Prospects located farther north or west may be closer to Wisconsin’s campus than that of Illinois.

Add it all up, and Wisconsin has provided an attractive package for Illinois prospects.

“What I admire in Wisconsin is it’s an old-school program where you just get tough kids that are going to compete every week, and they’re always in it,” Racki said. “I think that’s exactly the type of kids you’re getting from the Chicagoland area, and Wisconsin sees that.”


Wisconsin has produced its share of success stories recruiting the state of Illinois over the past decade. Center Dan Voltz (Barrington) started 27 games for the Badgers as a member of the 2012 class. Tight end Troy Fumagalli (Aurora) and outside linebacker Garret Dooley (Rochester) signed in the 2013 class. Fumagalli finished ranked seventh in school history with 135 receptions, started 32 career games and earned second-team All-America honors as a senior. Dooley started 16 games and was a second-team All-Big Ten selection in his senior year.

Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (Lake Villa) finished in the top 10 in career tackles while David Edwards (Downers Grove) transformed himself from a tight end into an All-America offensive lineman. Wide receiver Kendric Pryor (Hazel Crest) started 36 games, and inside linebacker Jack Sanborn (Deer Park) closed his career last season as a first-team all-Big Ten performer.

Recent Badgers signees from Illinois

Recruiting class Player Hometown State rank

2022

S Austin Brown

Johnston City

8

2021

ILB Bryan Sanborn

Deer Park

10

2020

OL Dylan Barrett

St. Charles

15

2019

ILB Maema Njongmeta

Buffalo Grove

9

2018

ILB Jack Sanborn

Deer Park

4

2017

OLB Izayah Green-May

Bolingbrook

9

2016

RB Sam Brodner

Glen Ellyn

15

2016

WR Kendric Pryor

Hazel Crest

31

2015

OL David Edwards

Downers Grove

12

2015

CB Titus Booker

Round Lake Beach

14

2014

ILB T.J. Edwards

Lake Villa

65

Still, most of those classes didn’t feature more than one or two Illinois prospects. The 2023 class has a chance to be the most successful collection of talent from Illinois that Wisconsin has produced in some time.

Jansey finished his junior season with 88 tackles and 16 tackles for loss, and his defensive coordinator compared him favorably to Sanborn because of his speed, instincts and physical nature. Piron called him “one of the hardest-working high school athletes in the history of high school football” because of his methodical, organized approach to nutrition and training.

Quedenfeld said Pierce, a 6-foot-3 and 290-pound defensive lineman, has a wingspan of 6-8. Wisconsin could use Pierce, who had offers from 11 Power 5 schools, across the line because of his athleticism and versatility. Howard could be a replacement for current Wisconsin standout Keeanu Benton at nose guard. Dawczak said the 6-3 Howard was a legitimate 320 pounds, which would make him one of the heaviest defensive linemen the Badgers have ever signed out of high school. Dawczak noted Howard’s “athleticism at that size really makes him special.”

“The thing that is amazing about it is usually if you hear that, a 320-pound high school kid, it’s not good weight,” Dawczak said. “It can look kind of sloppy. But Jamel, most people when he tells them what he weighs, they don’t believe him. They say he looks like he weighs about 280 because he carries it so well.”

Racki said Taylor is such a versatile weapon that he could play any position in the secondary. He also lines up on offense as a blocking tight end, a receiver and a running back and can decimate teams off the edge on jet sweeps.

Chad Hetlet, who is Terek’s coach at Glenbard West, said his star offensive tackle blew up on the recruiting scene the past two months after coaches saw the way he had transformed his body from a 350-pound lineman last fall to a sculpted and more athletic 295-pounder this spring. Terek earned a dozen scholarship offers since May, including from Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Iowa on the same day.

“I think he’s extremely underrated,” Hetlet said. “He’s one of the best we’ve ever had.”

Several schools have made inroads in Illinois given the number of Power 5 prospects available in the state. Notre Dame landed a commitment from offensive tackle Charles Jagusah, the No. 1-rated 2023 prospect in the state. Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Iowa State have multiple commitments. Illinois will continue to emphasize the state with Bielema in charge.

But Wisconsin has demonstrated it can be a player in Illinois. And if the five athletes Wisconsin has committed can prove their value in Madison, it could represent the start of something bigger for the Badgers in a critical battleground state.

“I think it’s tremendously important,” Dawczak said. “When you’re two-and-a-half hours away from a major metropolitan area that has a lot of talented high school football players, it only makes sense to try to get some of those guys to take a look at Madison. And Wisconsin has done a great job of getting those guys to come up there and get them committed.”

(Photo of Tyler Jansey: Cedric Jones / CedJay Photography LLC)

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