CARBONDALE (SIU ATHLETICS) — Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill announced a Signing Day class of 16 players on Wednesday — a group that features 14 freshmen and two transfers. He met with the media virtually to discuss the class in depth on Wednesday afternoon.
Nick Hill’s Opening Statement:
“Exciting day for Saluki football. As I came in this morning, just kind of reflecting back on our time here as a coaching staff, this is our sixth signing class. It goes by quick and this day’s always an exciting day. You spend so much time recruiting these guys. A lot goes into a signing class, especially football, whenever you’re recruiting so many kids. This year has been met with a lot of challenges, just like a lot of things in 2020. I’m proud of the way our staff quickly adjusted to the dead period and not being able to get out all the way back into the spring recruiting cycle. We weren’t able to get on the road, weren’t able to have guys on campus this summer and we weren’t able to get out to camps and watch these guys in person. So, your evaluations and the amount of information you had to collect was very important. Taking kids from programs that we’ve taken kids from before and our relationships with the high school coaches I think was huge.
We’re excited about the guys that we’re adding that’ll come here and be a part of Saluki football. It’s an exciting day for our staff and our families. They’re all excited and they put a lot of their heart and soul into recruiting these guys. When you finally see that piece of paper come through and make it official, it’s a good feeling. We’re excited that we have all those in. We’ll probably add a couple here in the next couple of days. Like we’ve always said, recruiting never stops. You’re constantly recruiting and looking for ways to improve your team and your roster.”
TJ Atkins Jr.
6-1, 187, Freshman
St. Louis, Mo. | Cardinal Ritter College Prep
Played wide receiver for three years before switching to quarterback during his senior season … Passed for 2,185 yards, 28 touchdowns two interceptions and a 60.0 completion percentage as a senior … Team went 0-3 in the regular season, but won four-straight Class 3 playoff games by outscoring its opponents 200-42 before falling in the semifinals … Also competed in track and field.
Coach Hill: “TJ is a guy that once Coach (Mark) Watson got here on staff this spring – TJ was the number one guy that we wanted to go get. A lot of these guys have been committed for a while and TJ is the same thing. St. Louis, like Illinois, didn’t’ play football this fall. A lot of these kids lost their senior seasons. TJ was able to get some games in and really made a great run for his high school. The thing that impresses me the most about TJ is that he played wide receiver, and that’s what we recruited him as, but he was asked to play quarterback his senior year because that’s what was best for the team. He led his team into a deep playoff run and was a team player. That’s what we’re looking for. I always say that if your high school coach puts the ball into your hands as the quarterback, that’s because he probably trusts you the most. That’s what really sold me on TJ, so we’re really excited about him.”
6-0, 175, Freshman
Oak Park, Ill. | Oak Park River Forest
Has started on varsity since his freshman season … Led Immaculate Conception to the Class 4A state championship his sophomore year … Named All-Area.
Coach Hill: “Another kid that we’ve recruited for a long time. He was an early commit, all the way back into the summertime. He comes from a great family. He’s a cornerback that we had pegged high on our board from the very beginning. We were able to get him to commit and he’s done a great job with all of the other recruits by selling this place. We’re excited about Jalen. He’s going to early enroll into school and be here in the spring. He won’t be eligible for our spring season, but it’ll be nice to have him get a jump-start, begin training and get to practice with our team this spring. That’ll be huge for Jalen. He’s another great kid that we’re excited to have here.”
6-3, 295, Freshman
Highland, Ill. | Highland HS
Three-year starter on varsity … Named to the 2020 preseason All-Metro offense by the St. Louis Post Dispatch … Helped lead his team to the 5A Class Quarterfinals in 2019 … Earned first-team All-Conference honors on both offense and defense after his sophomore and junior seasons … 2019 first team All-Area offense by the Belleville News Democrat.
Coach Hill: “He comes from a great program. Coach (Jim) Warnecke is one of those guys that we’ve built a relationship over time and when he says someone can play, we trust that evaluation. Sam hasn’t been able to have a senior season yet. Hopefully all the Illinois high school teams will get an opportunity to play in the spring. He’s a physical, hard-working type of kid that we want to bring in here to play on our offensive line. When you see Sam Buck, you’d say that he’s an interior, tough, hard-nosed offensive lineman. He’s got the mullet and has got the rest of the look down. We’re excited about Sam. I like the personality and I like what he brings to the team.”
5-10, 195, Senior
Detroit, Mich. | East English Village | Ferris State University
Transferring back to Southern Illinois after transferring to NCAA Division II Ferris State University … Started 11 games for the Bulldogs in 2019 … Recorded 31 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack … Also hauled in a team-high six interceptions … Prior to transferring from Southern, started the first four games at cornerback for the Salukis in 2018 before suffering a season-ending injury … Recorded 12 tackles, including 4.5 TFLs and 1.0 sack … Had a season-high six tackles, 2.5 TFLs and 1.0 sack versus South Dakota … Played in all 11 games as a sophomore in 2017 … Returned six kicks for 141 yards (23.5 yards per return) … Led SIU’s non-starters in tackles with 28 … Played in 10 games and started one (vs. Indiana State) as a freshman in 2016 … Made 17 tackles and broke up six passes on the season, including three vs. SEMO … Made a season-high five tackles in his start vs. Indiana State … Returned a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown in the win vs. SEMO … Named to the MVFC Academic Honor Roll … Two-time All-City honoree on the prep level at East English Village High School …Team defensive back of the year in 2014 … Had 40 tackles, five interceptions and one defensive TD as a senior … Scored 10 total TDs on offense … Also competed in basketball and track and field.
Coach Hill: “This is the second time that I’ll talk about James Ceasar signing with Southern Illinois. James was a part of our first recruiting class back in 2016. I just can’t tell you how excited I am that James is going to get to come back here. It’s a unique opportunity to really play two seasons with the spring season and next fall. James was here and started a lot of games for us in the secondary at corner and safety. He battled some injuries while he was here and transferred out. He got his undergraduate degree and played excellent last year at his previous school. This is an opportunity that came where he could grad transfer here. I’m super excited about James – he’s been a part of this family from day one when we were recruiting him out of Detroit. He’s an outstanding kid who’s grown into a great, young man. I love his family. James is a player – a high-level player that’s going to immediately fit right back in. All of his teammates know him. It’ll be a seamless transition back. Can’t wait to see him back on the field making plays for the Salukis.”
6-2, 180, Freshman
Memphis, Tenn. | Germantown HS
Played in 10 games as a junior in 2019 … Compiled 24 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns … Returned kickoffs as well, recording 254 yards on 12 returns … Named second team All-State as a wide receiver and second team All-Conference as a return specialist … Named to the honor roll and principal’s list … Cousins with New Orleans Pelicans’ point guard E’Twaun Moore … Also competed in baseball, basketball and track and field.
Coach Hill: “Another kid who hasn’t been able to play his senior season. I really feel like he’s a guy who would’ve had a huge senior year and maybe even a guy that we wouldn’t have been able to get had he played his senior season. He’s an outstanding young man. I love the way he carries himself. I love his maturity and his commitment in the classroom to being an excellent student. We’re excited about him. He’s a long, athletic receiver that I can’t wait to get into the weight room with our strength and conditioning staff to develop him because he’s a play-maker. We’re excited about him.”
6-2, 175, Freshman
Tampa Bay, Fla. | Robinson HS
School record holder in career interceptions with eight … Rated as a three-start recruit by 247Sports and Rivals … As a senior in 2020, limited opposing wideouts to two catches for 50 yards, 33 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception … Also played wide receiver, accumulating 47 career receptions for 674 yards and three touchdowns … Team finished 5-4 in 2020 … Earned honorable mention 2019 Class 5A All-State honors after recording 30 tackles, seven interceptions and four pass breakups as a junior … Two-year starter on varsity … Also competed in track and field.
Coach Hill: “Levi is a big, long corner. We’ve had a lot of success with long defensive backs and Levi is one of those guys. He’s a long corner who can do a lot of things. I can’t wait, like with a lot of these guys. When you see him in two or three years, you’ll know if we did our job or not as far as developing these guys. He’s got a ton of room for growth. At 6-2, he can play multiple positions in the back-end. That’s what we look for. We’re excited about Levi and excited for his family. He’s another great student and he’s going to make a great Saluki.”
6-6, 295, Freshman
Utica, Ky. | Daviess County HS
Played in every game except the first of his freshman year over his four-year high school career … Team finished 3-6 in 2020 …Named first team Messenger-Inquirer All-Area following his junior season … Helped Daviess County to a 5-6 record and a playoff appearance in 2019 … Four-time academic first team All-State … Also participated in two years of track.
Coach Hill: “We’re excited about Jon. He’s probably the biggest kid on this list. He’s a tough, hardworking kid from not too far away that we’ve liked. We’ve got four offensive lineman on this group and I feel like that’s a position that you can see we’ve been able to develop over time. That’s a group that you’ve got to take four or five kids a year. They’ve got to come here and put their heads down and continue to develop. In two or three years, those kids are ready to play and be starters for you. We’re excited about Jon and his family coming up here and being Salukis.”
6-1, 180, Freshman
Memphis, Tenn. | White Station HS
Class 6A 2020 preseason second team All-State selection … Team went 1-0 in 2020 before season was shut down … Recorded 50 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception during his junior year … Helped his team to a 6-4 record and a playoff appearance in 2019 … Is the first athlete in his family to go to college … Participates in charity work around the holidays.
Coach Hill: “CJ is another kid that wasn’t able to play as a senior, but he’s a kid that we feel like if he had a senior season, he’d be an FBS-level talent. I feel like those are the type of kids that we’re signing here. He’s another long defensive back that can have some flexibility in the back-end and play. He’ll start at safety. He’s got a 27 on his ACT, so he’s a smart kid who’s long and rangy. Perfect combination for the success that we’ve had with our defensive backs. We’ve got four of them playing in the National Football League right now. CJ has that type of makeup. Obviously, he’s got to come here and develop, but we’ve loved CJ for some time.”
5-11, 190, Freshman
Orlando, Fla. | Jones HS
School record holder for longest interception return touchdown (85 yards) … Two-year starter on varsity … Compiled 108 tackles and four interceptions during his high school career … Team went 9-1 and lost in the FHSAA 5A Regional Finals in 2020 … Helped lead his team to the state finals for the first time in school history in 2019.
Coach Hill: “There hasn’t been a signing day class, I don’t believe, where we haven’t signed someone from Jones High School. We’ve currently got a few guys on our team from Jones High School – PJ Juels and Calvin Francis. It’s a program that we feel confident when we take kids from their school. Delmontre is another guy that we feel like is tough, hard-nosed, loves the game of football and is appreciative of this opportunity. We’re excited about Delmontre in the defensive secondary. He’s a kid that’s physical, can hit and I think he’ll immediately come up here and make an impact on special teams and find a niche on the back-end that’ll help our team.”
6-1, 210, Freshman
Greenbrier, Tenn. | Davidson Academy
School record holder in career tackles, tackles for loss and touchdown receptions … Four-time All-Region and three-time All-State selectee … Helped lead his program to a 48-3 record over his high school career … Three-time state champion … Compiled 105 career catches for 1,929 yards and 27 touchdowns … Also recorded 307 career tackles, 84.0 TFLs, 19.5 sacks, nine fumble recoveries, two interceptions and four defensive TDs at outside linebacker … Team went 13-0 in 2020 and won the Division II Class A Tennessee high school state championship.
Coach Hill: “Can’t say enough about him. His dad’s his head coach. When you talk about tough, smart and a winner, that’s what this kid is. He’s a coach’s kid. His dad played in the NFL at quarterback, so he knows what it takes. With the expectations and standards that he holds for himself, he’ll come up here and be ready to work and be ready to go. He’s going to start out in the tight end room. I feel like he can be an outstanding guy we can move around. He’s a great pass-catcher and he’s a physical kid. In our league and with what type of offense we like to run – we play with multiple guys at the same time, so he’s going to add great value off the bat when he gets here.”
6-3, 260, Freshman
Basehor, Kan. | Saint Thomas Aquinas HS
Two-time Class 5A All-State team (2019, 2020) … Played three years on varsity … Finished his high school career with 148 tackles, 35 hurries, 17.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles … Team finished 7-4 in 2020 … Helped St. Thomas Aquinas to a perfect 12-0 record and a state championship during his sophomore season … Is the brother of Saluki defensive tackle Peyton Reeves… Also wrestled and threw shot put.
Coach Hill: “We signed his brother Peyton last year. We were excited about Caden. He’s from a great family and this is a unique opportunity. We’ve got several brothers on this team and it’s kind of unique. I don’t know where we rank in the country with the number of brothers we have – the Maddox brothers, the Cox brothers, the Strong brothers and now the Reeves brothers. We’re excited about Caden. Outstanding young man that comes from a great family. He’s a hard-nosed kid that we’re excited to put into Coach Chuka’s (Ndulue) defensive linemen room to develop him and get to work. We’ve known Caden for a long time. That’s what we talked about today with him. It’s been a long time coming, but time goes by pretty quick and now it’s his time. We’re excited that signing day came and we’ve got Caden coming to be a Saluki.”
6-3, 300, Freshman
Fairburn, Ga. | Creekside HS
Played four years on varsity … 2020 preseason All-State … Team went 7-3 and were Region champions in 2020 … 2019 6A first team All-Region selectee.
Coach Hill: “Rahyiem’s kid that we were able to get committed back in summertime. He’s been with us for a long time. He had an excellent senior season and I feel like he’s gotten better. Again, I’ve talked about how we want to go about recruiting the offensive line. We want to bring in kids that are ready to work and are going to get in that weight room and on the field to develop. College football is a game that you have to be able to develop your team. I think that we’ve proven that when you look at our offensive line and how it’s developed over the years. It’s been through hard work and guys that have come here and just put their head down and developed. We’re excited to get Rahyiem in there as well.”
5-9, 165, Senior
Atlanta, Ga. | Grady HS | Western Kentucky University
Transfer from Western Kentucky University … Played in 31 career games for the Hilltoppers at receiver, running back and returner … Attempted 10 career rushes for 84 yards and two touchdowns … As a receiver, hauled in 77 receptions for 974 yards and three TDs … Returned 23 kickoffs for 439 yards (19.1 AVG) … Sophomore season at WKU was cut short due to a season-ending injury on Nov. 2 against Middle Tennessee … Began his high school career at tailback and tallied 103 carries, 610 yards and three touchdowns during his sophomore and junior seasons … Switched to receiver his senior year and racked up 62 catches, 1,252 yards and 13 touchdowns … Named first team All-State by the Georgia Sports Writers Association … Led the Knights to a 10-2 record and a second round showing in the GHSA 5-A playoffs … He was a two-star recruit on 247Sports.
Coach Hill: “He’s a kid that’s explosive – he’s a play-maker. He needs the ball in his hands to make plays and he proved that at Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Conference. He’s a kid that’s coming here with a lot of experience. He’s played for three seasons and he’ll have the spring season and fall to play with us here. We’re excited to get him in this offense. He’ll get here in a few weeks and get rolling. I know Saluki fans will be excited to see him play for us this spring.”
6-3, 280, Freshman
Fairfield, Ohio | Fairfield Senior HS
2020 Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association Southwest All-District first team selectee … Two-time first team All-Conference and three-time All-Academic selectee … Three-year starter on varsity … Team captain … Also competed in lacrosse and track and field.
Coach Hill: “We’re excited about him. Again, I keep talking about our offensive line, but I truly believe that you’re not going to win any football games unless you’re built from the inside out as far as up front, with offensive and defensive lineman that are going to come here and develop. Ethan fits that. We’ve been able to recruit in that area of Ohio and have been happy about the guys we’ve gotten from there. Ethan comes from a great family. His dad is a football coach and a teacher. We’re excited about the makeup of this kid and what he’ll bring.”
6-2, 220, Freshman
Memphis, Tenn. | Ridgeway HS
Named to the 2019 Division I large school All-Metro team … Team MVP … Region 8 Defensive MVP … 5A All-Region team … Selected to play in the Hawaii Tiki Bowl … Compiled 87 tackles, 5.0 sacks and two forced fumbles in his career … Team was 0-3 in 2020 before season was suspended.
Coach Hill: “Louis is a great kid. He’s a guy that’ll start out playing inside linebacker for us. He can run, he’s physical at the point of attack and is another kid who’ll get up here and just get to work.”
6-2, 250, Freshman
Brownsburg, Ind. | Brownsburg HS
Full name is Maunaloakelani Jackson … Played two years of varsity football for Brownsburg high school … Has played quarterback, running back, safety, linebacker and defensive line … Compiled 47 career tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two fumble recovery touchdowns and a forced fumble … Led his team to an 8-2 record and a sectional playoff appearance in 2020 … Also competed in baseball, volleyball and track and field … Attended the same high school as Gordon Hayward of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
More from Coach Hill’s press conference
On the previous success with defensive backs: “We’re proud of the guys that have come here and got an opportunity to play on Sundays. If you asked our current team what their goals and aspirations are, I’d say 99-percent of them would say to get an opportunity to play in the NFL. That’s what this school and this program will give you – an opportunity to play at the highest level. Those guys that are there right now are proving that. We’ve got the same DB coaches. Coach (Marty) Rodgers has been here the entire time with me. Coach (Jason) Petrino has come in and done an outstanding job with those guys. The four guys we’ve got in the NFL right now, two of them we brought in as high school kids and they developed and played through – Ryan Neal and Jeremy Chinn. The other two of them transferred here. Craig James was from Minnesota and was a part of our first recruiting class that we took in as a transfer and played two seasons for us. Then, Madre Harper transferred here from Oklahoma State and played two seasons in 2018 and ’19. Whether you’re a transfer or a high school kid, I think we’ve proven that you’re going to get an opportunity here to get into a great system, develop and have an opportunity to go to the next level.”
On the challenge of recruiting from the area due to COVID-19 restrictions not allowing Illinois teams to play this fall: “We’re constantly looking. Right now, we’re already on to the 2022 class as far as the initial recruiting process with gaining that list. High school coaches have a huge part in who you’re recruiting. The high school coaches around here have our information. If they pick up the phone and tell us that a kid can play, that’s where it all starts. In football, maybe you’re 16 years old at the beginning of your junior year to where you’re at right now, you become a lot better of a player going into your senior year. I promise that if anyone would’ve recruited me off of my junior year film, I wouldn’t have been recruited by anybody. My senior year, I was a lot better of a player. That’s probably where you feel bad about some of those kids that really took jumps, matured and developed into completely different players from their junior to senior year. You just don’t have the film to validate that right now, so that’s probably the toughest part. The guys that we signed without senior years, we evaluated and recruited them based off of their junior year films.”
On the upcoming competitions in the secondary: “It’s just going to make them better. Competition makes us all better. You’ve got to bring it every day – whether it’s a walk-through, practice, it’s individual sessions. It’s a talented group. James (Ceasar) is a talented guy. Qua (Brown) is also coming back in the springtime. Our job as coaches is to find where they fit. We’ve all got to be humble and put the team first. It doesn’t matter what position you’re playing. Those guys will do that. Those guys care about each other and love one another. The ultimate thing is winning. Not one guy has gone on to the NFL because it was all about stats. Right now, as a recruiter, I’ll get emails and texts that say, “This guy passed for 4,000 yards,” or, “He had 92 tackles.” We’re not looking at stats. I’ve never asked an assistant coach for a guy’s stats. I want to see the video and I want to know about him. There are so many things that go into stats. It’s the same thing with the NFL scouts that come in to look at our players. They’re not asking if a guy had 90 or 68 tackles. They want to put on the film and see if the guy made the plays that he was supposed to make. They want to know what’s he doing, what’s his makeup and what’s his character. Same thing for recruiting. I feel confident in the makeup of our secondary. There’s a lot of good players back there with a lot of different personalities. Ultimately, we’ve got to come together for the common good of our team.”
On if there was a priority on any specific position this year: “No, I think we hit on where we wanted to be. I’d say that each staff across the country is going to view this recruiting cycle differently from others. I love our current team. Of course, we’ve got guys coming back as seniors, so you’ve got to find a way to bring those guys back but also sign a freshmen class for the future of your program. I feel like we did that. Each year we set out to sign a certain number at each position and I feel like we’re close at accomplishing those goals.”