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November 7, 2012
CHAMPAIGN - Rarely would a football program want to follow the blueprint of Indiana or Minnesota, but that's the current state of Illinois football as it endures an 11-game Big Ten losing streak.
The Hoosiers, riding consecutive conference wins for the first time since 2007, and the Gophers - who enter Memorial Stadium on Saturday one win away from gaining bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009 - still sit near the bottom of the totem pole, but they are inching up and currently looking down on Illinois.
The second-year growth under IU coach Kevin Wilson and Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has been aided by an influx of playing-time ready junior college transfers.
Wilson signed five JUCO recruits last year. Quarterback Cam Coffman stepped into the starting job when Tre Robinson went down with an injury, and linebacker David Cooper is the second leading tackler on the team. Leading rusher Stephen Houston, who ran for three touchdowns in the Hoosiers' win over Illinois, was a JUCO transfer in 2011. Kill has signed nine JUCO recruits his first two seasons in Minneapolis. Tight end John Rabe is the lone starter of the group, but the rest are on the two-deep.
At 2-7, Illini head coach Tim Beckman's first year hasn't gone as planned. So Beckman's staff is looking at model to bridge the gap between an inherited roster that lacks depth and its incoming recruiting classes.
"We're just going to fit the best players that we can fit here," Beckman said. "We just have a void in the upper class. That's the only reason that the junior-college football player would be that void for us, that age, but we're looking for football players that fit our scheme, and that's the most important thing, regardless of age."
How they got here
Former Illini coach Ron Zook recruited the current sophomore and junior classes while fighting off concerns about his job security. Rivals.com ranked the Illini Class of 2010 No. 70 in the nation, two spots behind Beckman's class at Toledo, a Mid-American Conference team. Seven of those 23 prospects either never made it to Illinois or have left Illinois, including some stars of the class: quarterback Chandler Whitmer (transferred to UConn), fullback Jay Prosch (transferred to Auburn) and linebacker Mark Wilson (played at a junior college). The talent could fall off even further if junior linebacker Jonathan Brown, the only proven star among both classes, decides to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
Following the Texas Bowl win, the Illini recruited Rivals' No. 42 class nationally in 2011. But six signees from the 28-member Class of 2011 are no longer at or never arrived at Illinois, including four-star safety Dondi Kirby and three-star defensive tackles Chris Jones and Clint Tucker.
Beckman has been forced to play players who simply aren't ready - mostly physically - at the Big Ten level, especially on the offensive line, where Illinois starts two redshirt sophomores and one redshirt freshman, and at linebacker, where Illinois will start two true freshmen (Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim) on Saturday.
The Illini's depth and inexperience issues worsen next year with the graduation of seven defensive starters and two starting offensive linemen. Worried it likely won't have capable replacements, the Illinois staff is looking to fill in the gaps with junior-college prospects. Coaches are focused in on filling needs at defensive end, safety, wide receiver and on the offensive line, especially a center. Illinois has already received a commitment from Iowa Western Community College wide receiver Martize Barr.
Beckman signed five JUCO recruits in three years at Toledo from schools in California, Michigan, Missisppi and Oklahoma. He said the actual pursuit of JUCO recruits is no different than recruiting high-school prospects.
"It's still about relationships," Beckman said. "It's still about making relationships with the players, making a relationship with the coaches, those type of things."
Getting them into the University of Illinois is another story.
Illinois has signed six JUCO recruits since 2005: Trulon Henry, Aaron Gress, Donsay Hardeman, Daniel Dufrene, Justin Sanders, Antonio Steele and Ismail Abdunafi. The academic standards at Illinois keep JUCO transfers a rarity in the Illini football program.
"There's no program here that you can funnel JC kids too," Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said. "Most schools do have those programs, where you can funnel JC kids to. There isn't (at Illinois). So the JC kids that we have to recruit have to have academics. Their academic standard has to be higher.
"If they're non-qualifiers in high school, they better have gotten in done their first two years at a junior college. I think you're recruiting a different kind of junior-college kid. You're recruiting a kid that has shown he can do it academically, on top of obviously playing at this level. So it makes it tougher."
Beckman said he has talked to the Illinois athletic administration about pursuing junior-college prospects. The staff knows the high admission standards will severely trim its JUCO prospect wish list.
"At some schools, you can go recruit the top-100 JC kids in the country," Golesh said. "Here, you can recruit literally 15 of those kids academically, so it makes it tough."
Other programs that have signed several JUCO prospects the past few years include Arizona State, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Utah, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and USC.
'Not wholesaling JC kids'
Kansas State has taken the JUCO route to the extreme. Bill Snyder has signed 24 JUCO prospects over the last three years. But the Wildcats, ranked No. 2 in the current BCS standings, are the exception to the rule. Most successful programs take junior college prospects to fill in the gaps, not to set the foundation.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik's 2011 BCS title team was littered with JUCO transfers, most notable Heisman winner Cam Newton. Two years later, Chizik's program is 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the SEC.
Beckman and his staff know that to sustain stability and success, they must recruit high school propsects who will have a four- to five-year impact on the program. But to give them the boost they need to compete and, in turn, earn the additional leeway and time needed to build a stable program, they'll try to take the JUCO route - just like Indiana and Minnesota.
"We're not wholesaling JC kids in anyway," Golesh said. "There's some spots that we'd like to get some guys in that we need immediate help. You'll see that over the next couple weeks that hopefully we're able to do that."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU