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May 16, 2014

Isaac intriguing for Illini

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For the third straight year, a former Illinois high school football star is returning home after a short stay at one of the nation's top football programs.

Will USC transfer Ty Isaac follow former Trojan Kyle Prater's path to Northwestern, track Oklahoma State starting quarterback Wes Lunt's trail to Champaign or choose his own course?

The former five-star running back out of Joliet Catholic - a 6-foot-3, 235-pound athletic specimen - wants to return closer to home to be nearer to his mother, who is experiencing hearing problems and agonizing headaches after complications to a surgery, in Shorewood, Illinois. He plans to make a quick decision so that he can be at a school for summer workouts, which start in June.

Several schools already have contacted Isaac, including Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan, among others. There are conflicting reports of whether USC refused to release Isaac to rival Notre Dame, who finished in Isaac's top three in high school, or whether they blocked him in time.

Regardless, Isaac brings plenty of intrigue to the Illini.

Tim Beckman's staff didn't have much of a chance with Isaac during his initial recruitment. Illinois hired Beckman shortly after Isaac set the IHSA State Championships record with 515 rushing yards in the 2011 Class 5A title game. Isaac committed to USC five months later.

Beckman didn't have much to sell then. He might have a better pitch now.

The Illini offense is coming off a 2013 season of vast improvement under first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini also are loading up with talent. Sophomore quarterbacks Lunt and Aaron Bailey give the Illini two different but dangerous options behind center. Isaac's former JCA teammate Josh Ferguson blossomed into a dynamic star last year. The Illini also added several potential weapons at wide receiver this spring, including junior-college transfers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis and in-state prospects Malik Turner and Mikey Dudek.

Isaac, who rushed for 236 yards on 50 carries and caught four passes for 57 yards in a limited role last season at USC, could continue the offensive revolution and the growing identity of point production at Illinois.

This might sound crazy, but with Isaac, Illinois could have an Oklahoma State-like arsenal (talent) at the skill positions for an Oklahoma State-like offense.

The Illini have plenty to sell to Isaac too.

First of all, Illinois will play him at running back. Other schools may want him to switch to defense, possibly as a linebacker or safety.

"He can be an every-down back," said Tim O'Halloran, publisher of EdgyTim.com. "He certainly has the hands and potential. But then you look at the size and think, how good of a fit is he in a shotgun, spread offense? He's a tremendous athlete and I think it's one of those deals where I really think Ty feels in his heart he's a running back. He certainly has shown the ability to be a running back at the big-time level. Yet, you guys know as well as I do, those athletic skills are really tempting for a school. I just don't know at this stage if he'd be willing to flip positions but I'm sure those are talks that he is going to have with more than a few schools.

"A team that is going to focus a bit more on the running game probably is a team that could have some kind of advantage there."

While Ferguson still has two years of eligibility remaining, Isaac would receive plenty of opportunities in Cubit's offense. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Ferguson is not the typical bell cow running back. He is as effective or more effective catching passes than taking handoffs (779 yards on 141 carries last season compared to 535 yards on 50 receptions).

If Isaac is awarded a hardship waiver by the NCAA to play right away, he would immediately compete with senior Donovonn Young as the go-to in-between-the-tackles option. Based on what we saw from Young last year (376 yards, 4.0 yards per carry), Isaac would have a great chance of winning that gig (good for about 10-15 touches per game if he is effective).

If Isaac must sit out a season, he and Ferguson would form a dynamic duo in the Illini backfield for a season before Isaac takes over as the go-to back for the next two seasons. Why? Illinois doesn't have much depth at tailback for the foreseeable future. Sophomore Devin Church is more of a change-of-pace back and redshirt freshman Kendrick Foster doesn't have the size or speed of a No. 1 back. Incoming freshman Matt Domer has the potential to be a dynamic option but is an unknown at this point.

And while Cubit's spread offense is often labeled "pass-happy," it's a bit of misnomer. The Illini had 411 rushing attempts last season, compared to a 455 pass attempts. And Cubit has never had a talent like Isaac in the backfield.

Isaac has the talent and the opportunity to be an immediate Illini star. But Illinois has plenty of competition for the former five-star back.

Northwestern has some advantages. First of all, Northwestern gives him the best case to play right away. Isaac plans on applying for a medical hardship waiver - which the NCAA has done away with starting with the 2015-16 season - to allow him to play right away. As we saw with the Ahmad Starks' case, the NCAA can be inconsistent with its application of the rule. But Isaac appears to fit the criteria of the hardship waiver if he elects to go to Northwestern. Unlike the Starks' case (his grandmother was ill), the Isaac case involves an ill parent.

Also, Northwestern (55 miles from Isaac's Shorewood home) is within the 100-mile radius the hardship waiver rule requires. Illinois (109 miles), Notre Dame (115 miles), Wisconsin (161 miles) and Michigan (260 miles) are not. Now, the drive to Champaign is only about 40 minutes longer than the drive to Northwestern. But if proximity to his mother and playing right away are the most important factors, the Wildcats have the advantage - especially considering Isaac must make his decision before applying for a hardship waiver.

Isaac has ties to both in-state schools. The former five-star running back shared carries with two other BCS running backs at Joliet Catholic: Northwestern's Malin Jones (a Class of 2012 prospect) and Illinois' Josh Ferguson (a Class of 2011 prospect). Isaac also has developed relationships with players on each team, including Illinois quarterback Aaron Bailey and Northwestern defensive back Parrker Westphal (both Bolingbrook products).

"There are obviously a lot of Joliet Catholic connections down at Illinois just with the student body there," O'Halloran said. "There's definitely some connections and pull there. Let's face it, it's a couple hours from where he lives. I think you definitely have to re-establish those relationships a little bit, but just being in-state and being as close as they are, I think there's an advantage there. But then on the flipside a little it, I know Ty is very close with Parrker Westphal and his family. Then obviously there's some other ties up at Northwestern. I mean we could play this game with any team in the Big Ten but one thing Ty told me is there will definitely be a focus on the Big Ten."

Illinois has Ferguson at running back. Michigan has former five-star, rising sophomore running back Derrick Green ready to take over. Northwestern has seniors Venric Mark and Treyvon Green, as well as Jones and incoming four-star prospect Justin Jackson. But if Isaac is as good as advertised, competition shouldn't scare him.

Regardless of his decision, Isaac gives Illinois and Northwestern something to sell to other in-state recruits. Like Isaac, Prater left the state for the glitz and glamour of USC, only to transfer to Northwestern after two seasons - and one reception. Lunt left for Oklahoma State and earned a starting job as a true freshman, only to lose it following two injuries.

Illinois is selling "Our State, Our Team." Northwestern is selling "Chicago's Big Ten Team." With top players like Prater and Lunt quickly returning to the Land of Lincoln after short stays at more prestigious programs, the in-state schools' sales pitches are reinforced.

Leave and you could be just another guy. Stay here, and you'll be appreciated and loved. If you play well - unlike Prater who has just 19 receptions in two seasons in Evanston - you could be a hero.

"I think when it comes to those situations, I think your best salesmen are the kids that are on your team and on your campus that have been through that," O'Halloran said. "Nothing hits home more I think than a peer. When a player sits down with a young man and a recruit and says, 'Hey, I got all the offers and I got all the big-time stuff and for whatever reason when something when wrong all of a sudden, I'm 2,000 to 3,000 miles away from home, it's a whole different circumstance.' It can't do anything but help Northwestern and other programs that have those type of kids."

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 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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