East St. Louis

Top 5: Hottest Recruits in Illinois Class of 2021 this spring

NBC Sports Chicago

Top 5: Hottest Recruits in Illinois Class of 2021 this spring

The Top 5 takes a look this week at who are the hottest recruits so far this spring in the State of Illinois Class of 2021.

East St. Louis four star-ranked wide receiver Dominic Lovett (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) - Lovett, who is now holding nearly 20 scholarship offers, has also become a highly sought after name from several Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools this spring. Lovett has now added SEC offers from the likes of Auburn, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State and Missouri. It's pretty rare for any kid from the Land of Lincoln to be heavily recruited from the powerful SEC conference schools.

Willowbrook three star-ranked offensive tackle Enrique Cruz Jr. (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) - Cruz Jr. added his first FBS offer back in early April and since then has seen his recruiting stock soar. Cruz Jr. added three new offers over the past two days from Wake Forest, Temple and Kansas and also recently added offers from Indiana and Toledo. Several new schools are beginning to line up for Cruz Jr.'s attention this spring, including Michigan. Cruz Jr.'s appeal is his impressive junior season video along with possessing balance, quick feet, length and the potential to add additional weight and strength at the college level. 

Glenbrook North offensive guard Jackson Carsello (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) - Carsello has just steadily added new offers after new offers this spring and is approaching 25 scholarship offers so far this spring. Carsello has also seen his offers grow from adding FCS level scholarships to his latest offers from the likes of Illinois, Syracuse and Central Florida. Carsello has continued to make big strides in the weight room and at the training table, having gone from around 200 pounds a year ago to now checking in at nearly 270 pounds.

Prairie Ridge three star-ranked athlete Carter Evans (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) - Evans, who played fullback and defensive end last season for the Wolves, is holding an impressive 31 scholarship offers so far this spring. Evans has been drawing recruiting interest and offers at either defensive end or at tight end. Evans has also remained on the short list for several Big Ten schools this spring including Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Evans' size, athletic skills and football IQ have been a big draw for multiple college programs this spring. 

St. Viator three star-ranked defensive end Jeremiah Pittman (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) - Pittman is now approaching 20 scholarship offers this spring and his latest offer comes from the University of Illinois. Pittman is now holding Big Ten offers from Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern. Pittman has tentatively set up an official visit to Iowa on June 19 as long as the NCAA decides to allow on-campus activities during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Which names from Illinois high schools to watch out for during NFL Draft

USA Today

Which names from Illinois high schools to watch out for during NFL Draft

The Land of Lincoln features several names to watch for in the upcoming NFL Draft, which begins next Thursday. Here is a list of NFL hopefuls who hail from Illinois:

DE A.J. Epenesa, Edwardsville/Iowa

Epenesa, a rare Rivals.com five-star ranked recruit from the Metro East area, was also ranked as the 30th best player in the nation in the Class of 2017. Epenesa, the son of former Iowa defensive linemen Eppy Epenesa, was verbally committed to the Iowa Hawkeyes over a year before making his official visit in Iowa City. Epenesa chose Iowa over drawing scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Michigan, Florida State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA and USC, along with nearly the entire Big Ten conference. 

TE Cole Kmet, St. Viator/Notre Dame

Kmet, a four-star ranked tight end according to Rivals.com, gave Notre Dame his verbal commitment on October 2, 2015 as part of the Fighting Irish Class of 2017. Kmet, who was also a standout baseball player who played both football and baseball in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, narrowed down his list of favorites to Notre Dame and Ohio State. Kmet drew scholarship offers from the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and North Carolina, among others. Kmet, who's father Frank played in the NFL for six seasons, played in the 2017 US Army All American Game. 

TE Albert Okwuegbunam, Sacred Heart-Griffin/Missouri

Known simply as “Albert O” in his days at Sacred Heart-Griffin playing for Hall of Fame head coach Ken Leonard, Okwuegbunam was a three star ranked tight end according to Rivals.com. He committed to Missouri on Sept. 20, 2015 after taking part in a game day visit to Columbia. Okwuegbunam, who also considered offers from Syracuse, Nebraska, West Virginia, Indiana and Michigan State drew considerable pressure from multiple schools to reconsider his choice after giving the Tigers his verbal commitment. However, he made his only official visit to Missouri in January. Owkuegbunam also was part of the Cyclones’ back to back Class 5A state title championship teams in 2013 and 2014.

DL Raequan Williams, DePaul Prep/Michigan State

Williams, who began his high school career as a Gordon Tech Ram and finished his high school career as a DePaul Prep Ram, (the school changed names in the summer of 2014) was a four-star ranked defensive linemen according to Rivals.com in the Class of 2015. Williams committed to Michigan State on December 20, 2014 in front a a packed gym before his basketball game that night. Williams, who was a two-way four year varsity starter at DePaul Prep, also considered Iowa and made official visits to both Iowa and Michigan State before making his final college choice. Williams drew scholarship offers from the likes of Arizona, Arizona State, Boston College, Oregon, Penn State and Tennessee.

RB James Robinson, Rockford Lutheran/Illinois State

Robinson, who was a two-star ranked running back according to Rivals.com during the Class of 2016, committed to Illinois State on Feb. 25 of that year. Robinson, who still holds IHSA two rushing records for most career rushing yards (9,045 yards) and career rushing touchdowns (158) was offered by Illinois State and head coach Brock Spack after an impressive summer camp performance had just one additional scholarship offer from Eastern Illinois along with steady recruiting interest from Iowa. 

WR Jeff Thomas, East St. Louis/Miami

Thomas, who was a four-star ranked wide receiver recruit according to Rivals.com in the Class of 2017, was simply one of the state's fastest and most electric play makers during his high school career at East St. Louis. Thomas, who drew nationwide recruiting attention since his freshman year at East St. Louis had narrowed down his final list of favorite schools to Illinois, Miami, Oregon and Tennessee decided to commit to the Miami Hurricanes on national Letter of Intent day Feb. 1, 2017 after making an official visit to Miami on Jan. 21. 

DL Mike Panasiuk, Lake Park/Michigan State

Panasiuk, who was a four-star ranked defensive tackle according to Rivals.com in the Class of 2017 committed to Michigan State on June 8th, 2015 just days after making an on campus unofficial visit and adding his Spartans offer. Panasiuk also considered Wisconsin, Penn State, Missouri and Minnesota along with Michigan State as his top schools list. Panasiuk was a four year varsity starter at Lake Park for head coach Chris Roll and was named as an All State player in 2014 and 2015 by EDGYTIM/Rivals.com. 

DT Amir Watts, Chicago Phillips/Pitt

Watts, who was a four-star ranked defensive tackle according to Rivals.com in the Class of 2016, committed to Pitt on January 25th, 2016 just a few days after making an official visit to Pitt. Watts, who held 25 FBS level scholarship offers also took official visits to Minnesota and Indiana. Watts who was named as an All State player in the 2015 season by multiple media outlets, was also a key on the Philips Wildcats 2015 Class 4A state title team. Chicago Phillips in 2014 was the first ever Chicago Public League football program to win an IHSA state title. 


Others NFL Draft hopefuls to watch:

QB Broc Ruter, Neuqua Valley/ North Central College

OL Luke Juriga, Marmion Academy/ WMU

LB Jordan Glasgow, Marmion Academy/ Michigan

RB Jonathon Ward, Bishop McNamara/ Central Michigan

WR Matt Cole, Chicago Curie/ McKendree

K Tucker McCann, O’Fallon/ Missouri

OL Tre’Vour Wallace Simms, East St. Louis/ Missouri

East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett reflects on 18-year career amid pandemic

NBC Sports Chicago

East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett reflects on 18-year career amid pandemic

The latest guest on my weekly 20 Minutes podcast is East St. Louis head coach and athletic director Darren Sunkett. He has coached the state's winningest football program of all time to an impressive 166-50 record in 18 seasons including IHSA state football titles in 2008 (Class 7A), 2016 (Class 7A) and in dominant fashion last season in  Class 6A. Sunkett and I cover everything from his coaching career, to being a Girl Dad as well as getting an early look towards the 2020 East St. Louis Flyers. 

EDGYTIM: With the current coronavirus pandemic, I imagine that your job as athletic director has been challenging and in many ways we are in uncharted waters. How have you been managing to handle all of the different aspects of dealing with the fallout from no spring sports?

Darren Sunkett: There is definitely no playbook on this thing, and with the governor extending all of the social distancing through the end of April we are now waiting on word from the IHSA on what we will do with spring sports. The more you look at it, personally I just don't see any way of getting it done. Hopefully we can find a way for our kids to at least experience at least a partial season. It's tough for the coaches right now and it's tough on the kids. It's a fluid situation.

EDGYTIM: You've been at East St. Louis for a lot of years now, and you know first hand that high school sports in general means so much to your community. How tough is it now for those athletes who get so much guidance and structure from those sports to then all of a sudden it's taken away?

Sunkett: I think you said it best when you said structure. In the community we live in, structure is what's most needed for our kids. As everyone knows we are in an impoverished area where our crime rate is different than suburban communities. Just having that structure for helping to keep kids off the streets and keeping our kids engaged and in a safe haven is so important. Our high schools, our middle schools and our grade schools are safe havens for our kids. It keeps them in a safe environment for at least 8-10 hours a day. I'm sure some of our kids are stressed out because they are so used to that structure being there. It's something they are battling with when I talk to them. We are hoping they are abiding by the governor and staying inside and doing their school work online. I'm hoping they are staying engaged educationally since sports have been taken away from them. 

EDGYTIM: One of the trademarks of your football program is you aren't afraid to travel and will play anyone, anywhere. You like to get your kids out and experience other parts of the state and the country. Has that been by design and if so where does that come from?

Sunkett: I think that's a big part of what we do and it helps those young men be better prepared for the world and life. I look back at my childhood and  I grew up in Camden (New Jersey). Growing up I never had the opportunity to leave Camden. All I saw was those 8 square miles my whole life until I went off to college. I wasn't exposed to anything but the inner city. Just to be able to give out kids a chance to see other environments, to see how other people live and give them the opportunity to travel and see other cities is something some kids never get to do. They might not ever get the chance to do these things in life, but at least we gave them that opportunity and experience as a student athlete. We think it's an experience they will remember and cherish for a lifetime.

EDGYTIM: You've had quite the run at East St. Louis over the past 18 plus years now. Do you ever get the chance to look back and reflect on some of those earlier teams and the success or are you just always looking ahead?

Sunkett: We always have alumni come back and they make you reflect back on those days. Kids I've coached previously stay in touch with the program and they come back and we always rehash the old days. I've been doing this now for a long time, and sometimes you sit back and it hits you like, "Wow I've really aged" in this game. I've matured as a coach and you reflect back on the good times and you also reflect on the bad times, too. I tell my kids my best times are probably behind me now, and I'm on the back end now. I cherish every year I have now, and to answer your question I definitely reflect back on those days. You can't move forward unless you can understand the past. I understand the hurdles we went through as a program and it just makes us stronger for the future. 

EDGYTIM: With the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant, we had a lot of talk about being a Girl Dad. You are a Girl Dad and how has that changed you? How has it impacted you as a coach? 

Sunkett: I've got three of them (girls). I had a daughter who played basketball at Western Kentucky, another daughter that ran track at Alabama A&M and now I have my baby girl who's 8. So I really know this whole Girl Dad thing and I really understand it. The whole Kobe thing really hit home especially now with this coronavirus.  It's just scary and you always want to be there for your kids. I don't have any grand kids yet and I want to see my grand kids before I go. I want to get to know my grand kids.  I try to spend as much time as I can with my daughters and two have moved out of town now so I cherish every moment I have with them. I've also have had two players who were very close to me pass in Damien Nash and then Jaylon (McKenzie) and it makes me cherish every minute you spent with your kids. During the season I'm with my players more than I am with my family and my players are an extension of my family. It's like I have 55-60 sons at one time. It's taught me to treat every kid with respect like you treat your own kids because you might wake up one morning and never have a chance to talk to that kid ever again. 

EDGYTIM: Last season you go 14-0 and win a state title. You've had some great teams, but where does the 2019 rank compare to some of those great East St. Louis teams you've coached in the past? 

Sunkett: I tell everyone that I think top to bottom that team (2019) was my best team so far.  When you try to think of a weak link from last year it maybe was the offensive line. They were all first year starters and two of them were freshmen in Miles (McVey) and Paris (Patterson) except for one kid. They were an inexperienced line and we didn't know where they would take us, but those kids worked their butt off to get us to succeed. We let them know all year they were the weak link as we pushed those guys day in and day out. They really stepped up and got it done and led us to a state championship. 

EDGYTIM: I love your schedule each year because you take on everyone. Last year right out of the gates you played Batavia at Batavia and in that first game your kids came out on fire (a 31-17 Flyers win). Was that game the tone setter for the remainder of the year?

Sunkett: That was definitely the tone setter. We looked forward to that game all year and the last time we played Batavia was in 2007 and we knocked them out of the playoffs and they were a very good football team back then. I tell my kids all the time teams and coaches never forget losses, so we knew going in it would be a hostile environment. We had to prepare our kids for a very physical game because that's what Batavia brings week in and week out. If we could compete with them physically upfront in the trenches, our team would be fine. Our kids came in and competed their butts off and we jumped on them early. 

EDGYTIM: How important in the big picture was the Neuqua Valley win (a come from behind 50-48 win) Week 3 on the road in Naperville?

Sunkett: That was a big win also. The biggest thing out of that game is we had a heat wave that week in St. Louis, and we didn't have an opportunity to practice that week. So everything for us was film study all week and one or two walk thru's. We didn't put any pads on and our walk thru were in the gym so I was highly concerned as far as going into that game. It showed, it definitely showed early in how poorly we played. We were prepared but we weren't prepared. Our gym just isn't big enough to have a proper walk thru. Just trying to find an answer for their quarterback (Mark Skoronski) was a big challenge. He was an outstanding football player. When we won that game I knew we were ready. I really didn't think we could be beat after that game. Just having those guys take us to the wire and having an opportunity late to win the game on fourth down, I knew we were on our way after that game as long as we could stay injury free.

EDGYTIM: Looking ahead to the 2020 season, fill us in on the first three weeks of the regular season schedule.

Sunkett: We open with two Missouri powers. Week 1 we have the 2018 Missouri state champion in Christian Brothers College and they are loaded year in and year out and they are always nationally ranked. Week 2 we host the annual Scholars Classic and we play 2019 6A Missouri state champions in the Desmet Spartans. They are also loaded every year and they will be a part of the Classic and we have our hands loaded with both of those Missouri teams. Week 3 we travel to California and play St. John Bosco for a national TV game. They were the number one ranked team in the country last year and they are supposedly going to be the preseason number one ranked team again in the nation for 2020. Right now they have 18 guys with Power 5 offers (chuckling), so yeah that's our Week 3 game. 

EDGYTIM: You bring back some really impressive kids from last season, especially on the offensive side of the football. 

Sunkett: You start with (quarterback) Tyler (Macon), and he improved so much last year for us. This year I'd like Tyler to be just a little more vocal as a leader. He's not the most vocal kid and just running our tempo offense I'd like to see him get into it a little bit more vocally. Just the way Tyler is as a game manager and a play caller, he can only get better from here on out. This kid is phenomenal when it comes to picking up the game plan. He's a very bright kid who has a very bright future. (Wide receiver) Dominic (Lovett) took his game to another level last season. It's crazy, but it took Dominic a whole summer to make it through one of our team workouts. I don't think people understand how hard our kids work and how well conditioned we are each year.  Dominic took a while to get adjusted after he transferred in. He made it through the summer and Week 1 he was ready. I think just being around out guys made Dominic's take his game to another level and he also took our offense to another level. He was able to stretch the offense vertically and he was that thumper we were missing in our offense. Adding Dominic with Keontez Lewis, who's another kid who can stretch you vertically and also horizontally and they make it tough for other teams to defend us. Tyler committed to Missouri already while Dominic has multiple Power 5 offers and so does Keontez. We also have some nice younger receivers who will compliment those guys. We talked already about the two freshmen linemen back for next season and it's just about getting them in the best shape possible and they have nothing but upside. We also have three sophomore lineman to throw in with them. It will be a sophomore line with one junior and those guys overall will be pretty good.