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June 25, 2012
The positive about having low expectations? Setting yourself up to be pleasantly surprised.
Tim Beckman and the Illinois football staff have pleasantly surprised a contingent of doubtful Illini fans with what they've accomplished in recruiting during their first six months on the job. Without even winning (or losing) a game, the new staff is winning over recruits.
After receiving three verbal commitments last week, Illinois has 13 verbal commitments in the Class of 2013. Rivals currently ranks the Illini commitment list as the No. 21 class in the country.
Of course, the ranking - Illinois' stars-per-prospect average is tied for 50th - doesn't mean much right now. Illinois has seen classes that were highly-ranked on paper from the past not work out on the field.
"I don't know if we ever look at the ranking part of it," Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said. "Obviously as a staff, that is great recognition for the work. But it's how those guys turn out two or three years from now that really matters."
But the recruiting success has given the Illinois football program some momentum. The staff works at warped speed and while their efforts - they hosted seven satellite camps at in-state high schools - might not drag the Illini out of the muddled middle- to lower-tier of the Big Ten, the staff has avoided a slow start out of the gates.
Beckman hasn't turned Illinois into the cool kid of the conference overnight. But the Illini certainly isn't the smelly kid that no one wants to talk to or be associated with. Illinois' 13 verbal commitments are third-most in the Big Ten (the stars-per-prospect average is last but likely will rise by Signing Day).
"It seems like (the Illinois staff is) a pretty cohesive group. They're certainly getting after it, and they have to" said state of Illinois recruiting expert Tim O'Halloran, publisher of EdgyTim.com. "I think this first year, they've done a really good job of getting out there."
The Illini coaches have taken advantage of one of the positives of being a first-year staff: they receive the benefit of the doubt from coaches, prospects and fans. Ron Zook, who had to answer questions about his job security during his last three seasons, had a tougher sales job recently. Hope, change and potential always seems enticing to prospects. Zook had similar success with that sales pitch when he took over in 2005.
"It does feel somewhat similar (to when Zook took over)," O'Halloran said. "It's almost like that new-car smell and feel. Like I said, he's the new guy. He's the new message. They're banging the pots and pans and trying to rally the troops. It was very similar when Zook came in '05, no question. I think if anything, Zook at least had that reputation of being a recruiter. This staff I think there were more question marks than answers. I think if anything, Zook probably had a little bit more of an advantage coming in and had a little bit higher profile with the fan base because of his recruiting at Florida.
"They get a pass until you see what they can do on the field, and even then you got to get a little pass for a while because these really aren't their (players). I mean they're inheriting someone else's players and it's going to take them a while to get their type of kids in and the kids that they want."
Zook had six commitments for the Class of 2006 by the end of June 2005, including commitments from four-star prospects Chris James, Marques Wilkins and Juice Williams, the team's future quarterback and face of the program. By the start of the season, he had 10 commitments. But that doesn't mean Beckman is ahead of Zook. The recruiting process has sped up over the last seven years.
"If you don't have 14, 15, 16 locked up by now, you're way behind, while maybe four or five years ago, you could get away with it and maybe hit late on some higher profile kids," O'Halloran said. "But we (in Illinois) are the land of the early commit. There's no question. We've always been that way. And now nationally it's getting earlier and earlier. You got to lock them up as early as you can - and then hang on for dear life."
Two of last week's commitments were in-state prospects - O'Fallon cornerback Darius Mosely and defensive tackle Bryce Douglas - giving the Illini verbal commitments from six in-state prospects. But only one, four-star Bolingbrook quarterback Aaron Bailey, ranks among Rivals' top seven prospects from Illinois.
Blue-chip running back Ty Isaac picked USC. Ethan Pocic, brother of Illinois center Graham Pocic, chose LSU. Top offensive line prospects Kyle Bosch and Logan-Tuley Tillman pledged to go north to Michigan. Undecided wide receiver Laquon Treadwell may join his peers in leaving the state. The next step for this Illinois staff, O'Halloran said, is to beat out Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, USC and other premier programs for the state's top talent.
"I thought Aaron Bailey was a really big get," O'Halloran said. "Mosely's a really nice addition. Those are two really high-quality kids and high-quality recruits. I just want to see them get that big-time blue-chipper out of this state because I think once you get one of them, I think they can get a few more. To me, that's probably the biggest challenge right now. Not to say that Bailey's not one of those kids because I think in the long run he could be, but you're never going to get them all here. But if you can get your fair share, you're going to do pretty well."
This is a process. Illinois' history of struggles can't be changed in six months on the recruiting trail. But Beckman and his crew's efforts have given them the momentum to take the first step in climbing up the conference ladder. While questions remain for the staff - especially on the current roster - Illini fans who derided the hiring of Toledo's coach should enjoy the pleasant surprise of his staff's early success in convincing 13 recruits that Illinois is the place to play football.
"The players and coaches that we have been able to reach out to, I think they see that we have some momentum going and we got some players to say 'yes' they want to be an Illini," Golesh said. "We just have to keep working at it and keep talking Illinois football with anyone who will listen."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM