Players from Illinois are expected to contribute more to the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team next season.
Receiver Chris Autman-Bell is the top candidate to help fill the void left by Tyler Johnson; Mariano Sori-Marin will move into Thomas Barber’s spot at middle linebacker; and Tyler Nubin will step into Antoine Winfield Jr.’s huge shoes at free safety.
And it doesn’t appear this trend will end anytime soon.
Minnesota’s 2021 class now has six Illinois residents among its 17 members. All six are ranked among 247 Sports’ Top 25 prospects for the state, part of the reason P.J. Fleck’s 2021 class is ranked in the Top 10 nationally.
When Fleck was hired as Minnesota’s coach in 2017, the Sugar Grove, Ill., native cast a recruiting radius to include his home state. His first class at Minnesota included four players from Illinois, including Autman-Bell and center/guard John Michael Schmitz, who started four games last season.
The next two classes had two Illinois players each. In 2018, it was Sori-Marin and defensive tackle Jamaal Teague, who played in all 13 games next year; in 2019, it was Nubin and offensive tackle J.J. Guedet, a candidate to join Minnesota's two-deep this fall.
The latest Illinois commit is Cameron James, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound offensive tackle from Simeon Career Academy in Chicago. On Sunday, the four-star prospect picked Minnesota over other finalists Michigan State, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri.
During the recruiting process, James found out he and Gophers running back commit Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving of Country Club Hills, Ill., are maternal cousins.
James said he was visiting the home of a cousin, and she told him that another of her cousins had committed to Minnesota in early May. They pieced together the distant familial relationship.
Irving and James started communicating, Irving sharing how “he wants me to be a part of everything they are going to have,” James said. “We are going to change Minnesota’s history. We are going to make history.”
James’ commitment comes during the NCAA’s shutdown of in-person and on-campus recruiting due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, that policy was extended through July.
Despite those constraint, more than 800 recruits nationwide have committed before their senior years of high school. That’s more than double at this point in a typical year, according to footballscoop.com.
“I was mainly going to commit at the end of my football season, but with the whole thing going on, it was really the best thing to do,” James told the Pioneer Press.
James said he made the decision because of the relationship forged with Gophers offensive line coach Brian Callahan, the Gophers' primary recruiter for Illinois.
“This is somebody that I can actually look up to,” James said. “… They have just been wonderful to me. They are talking to me every day, texting me, calling me. They just give off that family-type relationship.”
James was going to play tight end last year before another player left the program, Simeon coach Dante Culbreth told the Chicago Sun-Times. James, a former basketball player with the size and ability to dunk, showed off that athleticism as well as power in his Hudl highlight reel.
“He’s going to be the one with all the intangibles … and he can do a back flip at that size,” Culbreath told the Sun-Times.
James plans to enroll at Minnesota next June. By that time, it could look a lot more like the Illinois Gophers.