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July 5, 2014

Illini football slowly but surely building depth

CHAMPAIGN - If Illinois landed Miles Boykin - a four-star wide receiver from Chicago's south suburbs - on Wednesday, the Illini program undoubtedly would've received bigger buzz on social media and in Chicago media.

But Boykin - who had offers from the likes of Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Ohio State, Oregon and Wisconsin - instead chose Notre Dame. Another in-state loss for Illinois.

Regardless, Illinois had a nice week in recruiting. They added to their offensive line depth by adding commitments from junior college guard/center Zach Heath and three-star Dallas wide receiver A.D. Miller.

Like Boykin, Miller is a talented tall (6-foot-4) wideout. Like Boykin, he had an impressive offer list (Arizona State, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Washington, among others). He has only three stars and isn't a top in-state recruit, but Miller adds even more depth to an already talented receiving corps.

But that week won't earn as much buzz in social or traditional media as a Boykin commitment. Stars are sexier than depth, but depth is the start of program-building.

Stars fade. Depth sustains. A lack of depth is a big reason Illinois hasn't been able to sustain success, but Tim Beckman's staff is slowly but surely bringing depth to Champaign.

I could just tell you that, but I thought it'd be better to show you.

So let's compare the depth of the program Beckman inherited with the depth of the program he will have built. For this exercise, I took the Week 1 depth chart from 2012 (which consisted of Zook's final three recruiting classes and Beckman's first, which he had fewer than two months to piece together) and compared each position group to my projected Week 1 depth chart in 2015 (which will consist of Beckman's first four recruiting classes).


2012 - Nathan Scheelhaase, r-Jr./Reilly O'Toole, So./Miles Osei, Jr.
2015 - Wes Lunt, rs-Jr./Aaron Bailey, Jr./Chayce Crouch, r-Fr./Jimmy Fitzgerald, Fr.
Comparison: Scheelhaase was hampered by injuries and play-calling in 2012, and O'Toole hasn't yet lived up to some of the high school hype. The 2012 group was a mishmash of unalike quarterbacks. The 2015 group, with the exception of run-first, top-notch athlete Aaron Bailey, has more of a singular identity: tall pocket passers. If Lunt gets hurt, Bailey - unlike the 2012 backups - seems to have the natural talent to win games, not just manage them.
Edge: 2015

2012 - Josh Ferguson, r-Fr./Donovonn Young, So./Dami Ayoola, Fr./Zach Becker, Sr.
2015 - Josh Ferguson, r-Sr.*/Henry Enyenihi, Jr./Devin Church, r-Jr./Dre Brown, Fr./Reggie Corbin, Fr./Kendrick Foster, r-So.
* - Ferguson could be a candidate to enter the 2015 draft given that he will have already graduated, that he put up big numbers as a sophomore and that running backs generally enter the draft as early as possible to limit their chances for injury.
Comparison: The 2012 group was young and talented but injuries limited Ferguson and a subpar offensive line and pass attack limited all of them. If Ferguson leaves early, the 2015 group might not be strong, but Enyenihi's commitment gives the Illini a big back option to pair with the speed of Church, Brown and Corbin. It'd likely be a running back by committee approach with pressure on Lunt and the passing game.
Edge: If Ferguson stays, 2015 because of his experience and game-breaking ability. If he leaves, 2012.

2012 - Darius Millines, Jr./Justin Hardee, Fr./Tim Lukas, Jr./Fritz Rock, So.
2015 - Justin Hardee, Sr./ Raphael Barr, Jr./Malik Turner, So.
Comparison: The 2012 group appeared to have one solid starter (Millines, who was limited by injuries before being dismissed after the season) with No. 1 potential with a promising freshman behind him. The 2015 group returns a likely 2014 starter (Hardee), a likely 2014 contributor (Barr) and young player with future No. 1 ability (Turner).
Edge: 2015

2012 - Spencer Harris, Jr./Kenny Knight, r-Fr./Jeremey Whitlow, r-Fr.
2015 - Geronimo Allison, Sr./Tyrin Stone-Davis, Jr./A.D. Miller, Fr.
Comparison: Oh my! The 2012 group was tall, but the 2015 group is tall and really, really athletic. All three have the ability to be vertical threats and red-zone threats. They probably won't all work out, but if one or two do, the Illini quarterbacks will put up big numbers.
Edge: 2015, in a landslide

2012 - Ryan Lankford, So./Peter Bonahoom, r-Fr.
2015 - Mikey Dudek, So./ D.J. Taylor, Jr./Marchie Murdock, r-So.
Comparison: Speaking of big numbers, expect Dudek to have a shot at David Williams' all-time school receptions record (262) if he can stay healthy all four years - and if Bill Cubit is at Illinois for the foreseeable future. Cubit's offense usually has a 70-catch guy and Dudek, a short but quick, athletic and precise target, can do that in the slot. And unlike Lankford, who had a freshman walk-on backing him up, Dudek will have Division I caliber speed and athleticism behind him.
Edge: 2015, easily

2012 - Jon Davis, So./Eddie Viliunas, Sr./Evan Wilson, Jr./Matt LaCosse, So.
2015 - Andrew Davis, Jr./Tyler White, Jr./ Trevor Kantemann, r-So. /Tim Clary, Sr./2015 recruit
Comparison: One of the few positions Illinois was stronger at three years ago (if only LaCosse had been redshirted). But Davis and White are two intriguing targets who will have playing experience, Davis in junior college and White as a Big Ten backup. Expect Illinois to add more depth here in the 2015 class (Caleb Reams?).
Edge: 2012

2012 - Hugh Thornton, Sr./Shawn Afryl, So./Simon Cvijanovic, r-So.
2015 - Christian DiLauro, r-So./Pat Flavin, Sr./Gabe Megginson, Fr./Peter Cvijanovic, r-Fr.
Comparison: Thornton was a third-round NFL draft pick and now is a starter for the Colts. His backup wasn't a Big Ten contributor. Simon Cvijanovic eventually became the backup and starter. The staff loves DiLauro and Megginson is the prized in-state coup of the 2015 class so far. Flavin has struggled to find a happy medium between putting on weight and keeping his quickness and now looks like a career backup. There may be no Thornton here. And an injury could force a freshman into too-early playing time, but that freshman looks like a bona fide Big Ten player.
Edge: 2012 because of Thornton

2012 - Alex Hill, So./Robbie Bain, Fr./Chris O'Connor, r-Fr.
2015 - Nick Allegretti, So./Chris Boles, Sr./Adam Solomon, Fr.
Comparison: You could switch positions between Allegretti and Joe Spencer here, but look at that 2012 group. Hill was overmatched as a sophomore. O'Connor had just moved from defense and Bain eventually moved to defense. Still concern here, though, with a second-year starter backed up by another 2011 lineman who doesn't look like a Big Ten starter. Though Spencer could move to guard and Zach Heath could start at center. That should allow Solomon to redshirt.
Edge: 2015, by a hair

2012 - Graham Pocic, Sr./Jake Feldmeyer, Jr./Tony Durkin, r-Fr.
2015 - Joe Spencer, r-Jr./Zach Heath, Jr./Tony Durkin, Sr.
Comparison: Pocic, one of the team's top lineman in 2012, was forced to play here because of the giant talent dropoff. In 2015, this is the best depth on the offensive line right here. Spencer has the tenacity the Illini have lacked up front. He just needs a little more strength and experience, which he should get this season. Heath looks like a contributor if he can add more muscle. Allegretti can play here too.
Edge: 2015, due to depth (i.e. Pocic wouldn't have to play center in 2015)

2012 - Ted Karras, r-Fr./Tyler Sands, Sr.
2015 - Ted Karras, Sr./ Chris O'Connor, Sr./Zeke Martin, Fr.
Comparison: Karras was possibly the Illini's second best lineman in 2012 and could be an All-Big Ten candidate as a senior. Again, Spencer/Allegretti could be the backup here with Heath filling in at center. That'll allow Martin, who is limited but a scrapper, to redshirt.
Edge: 2015

2012 - Michael Heitz, So./Pat Flavin, r-Fr./Ryan Nowicki, r-Fr.
2015 - Austin Schmidt, Jr./Scott McDowell, Sr./Jesse Chadwell, r-So./2015 recruit
Comparison: Simon Cvijanovic eventually became the starter as Heitz moved inside to replace Hill - none were very productive after being pushed into action much too early due to a lack of upperclassmen. Flavin didn't pan out, and Nowicki's Illini career ended due to concussions. This is another concern position for Illinois, though the staff likes Schmidt, who was forced into action as a true freshman. This position, like many on the offensive line, will look better as these young players mature, but it's a concern in 2015.
Edge: Draw, because the 2015 group still has a bunch of unknowns and at the time we thought the 2012 group had a brighter future


2012 - Tim Kynard, Jr./Kenny Nelson, r-Fr.
2015 - Kenny Nelson, Sr./Joe Fotu, Jr./Paul James III, Fr./Tito Odenigbu, r-Fr.
Comparison: Kynard was solid but had absolutely no competition for a starting spot. Nelson will now be pushed by a Kynard-like JUCO addition, Fotu, and a talented but supremely inexperienced freshman (James).
Edge: 2015, easily

2012 - Akeem Spence, Jr./Jake Howe, So.
2015 - Teko Powell, Sr./Jarrod Clements, Jr./2015 recruit
Comparison: Spence was a great gap-plugger and is now cashing NFL checks. Howe was replaced as a starter last year. Powell has NFL potential like fellow Florida native Spence and should grow with reps in 2014. Clements, who has a good mix of size and speed, should be the kind of rotation player Illinois missed the last two seasons, one who can push the starters. Basically, Illinois actually has a rotation on the interior, something it obviously didn't have in 2012 and 2013. Like many Big Ten teams, Illinois has struggled to add talent here so far in 2014 and 2015.
Edge: Draw, because Spence is an NFL player but Powell and Clements both might be starting caliber players in the Big Ten.

2012 - Glenn Foster, Sr./Austin Teitsma, So.
2015 - Jihad Ward, Sr./ Robbie Bain, Jr./2015 recruit
Comparison: Foster eventually turned his NFL talents into production during his last few games as an Illini. Teitsma returns as a quality, strong, reliable rotation player, but Ward has the size (6-7, 285 pounds) and athleticism that will draw attention from NFL scouts. Clements will likely rotate at this spot too, but Illinois needs another body or two here in the 2015 class.
Edge: Draw

2012 - Michael Buchanan, Sr./Darrius Caldwell, r-Fr.
2015 - Dawuane Smoot, Jr./Carroll Phillips, Sr.
Comparison: Buchanan was moved around as a senior - maybe too much - and saw a big dip in production without Whitney Mercilus lined up on the other side. He has stuck on the Patriots roster though. Caldwell had talent but was dismissed. The coaches may be higher on Smoot than any other young defender, and Phillips is an impressive specimen. I think Paul James III should move here in the future, giving the spot even more depth.
Edge: Draw, because Buchanan is an NFL player and the 2015 group is unproven

2012 - Houston Bates, So./Mason Monheim, Fr./T.J. Neal, Fr.
2015 - Mason Monheim, Sr./Mike Svetina, Sr./Henry McGrew, So./Austin Roberts, r-Fr.
Comparison: Two experienced Big Ten players backed up by two developing second-year players. That looks a heck of a lot more appealing than 2012.
Edge: 2015, easily

2012 - Jonathan Brown, Jr./Mike Svetina, Fr./Ralph Cooper, So.
2015 - T.J. Neal, Jr./B.J. Bello, Jr./Tre Watson, So.
Comparison: Brown was coming off a stud sophomore campaign, but got hurt, forcing Svetina into action too early. Neal has some Brown to him. Svetina may back him up too.
Edge: 2012, but it's a draw if Neal plays like I think he can

2012 - Ashante Williams, Sr./Ta'Jarvus Fuller, Fr.
2015 - Eric Finney, Sr./James Crawford, r-So./B.J. Bello, Sr./Patrick Nelson, Fr.
Comparison: Due to Fuller's dismissal after his freshman season and the Illini's struggles to find future fits at the STAR, this could possibly the biggest position battle on defense for the Illini in 2015. I do think Bello will get moved back outside to add another possibility though.
Edge: Draw

2012 - Terry Hawthorne, Sr./Jack Ramsey, Sr./V'Angelo Bentley, Fr.
2015 - V'Angelo Bentley, Sr./Darius Mosley, Jr./Julian Hylton, So.

2012 - Justin Green, Sr./Eaton Spence, r-Fr.
2015 - Caleb Day, Jr./ Jaylen Dunlap, Jr./Dillan Cazley, Jr./2015 recruit
Comparison: The Illini should have one of the deepest and most experienced groups of corners in the Big Ten in 2015. And while the 2012 group had a few guys who spent last summer on NFL rosters, the 2015 group has a one or two, especially Day, who could last longer at the next level.
Edge: 2015, fairly easily because I wasn't as big of a Hawthorne fan as others

2012 - Pat Nixon-Youman, Sr./Nick North, r-Fr.
2015 - Taylor Barton, Jr./Eaton Spence, Sr./ JeVaris Little, Jr. / Chris James, So.

2012 - Earnest Thomas, So./Tommy Davis, Sr.
2015 - Clayton Fejedelem, Sr./Darwyn Kelly, r-So./Patrick Nelson, Fr./2015 recruit
Comparison: Safety was a trouble position then and continues to be a concern, so I foresee one of the CBs switching to safety (I'm going with Spence though Cazley is also a possibility). Adding a 2015 recruit, especially junior college safety Charles "Ace" Rogers would significantly boost the Illini's depth and talent level.
Edge: Draw, because I can't say neither, though Rogers would give 2015 an edge.

This exercise shows us a few things. In general, Illinois has many more Big Ten bodies than it did in 2012, especially at quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback and on both the lines.

The offensive line, however, is young, and Illinois' big haul of offensive linemen in 2015 (likely five recruits) can't have a repeat of the five-man 2011 offensive line class, which produced just one contributor, let alone starter, so far (Karras).

The staff has done a good job of boosting the defensive line for 2014 and 2015. But like the rest of the Big Ten, Illinois has struggled to add no-doubt Big Ten talent on the front four in its 2014 and 2015 classes.

The safety and STAR positions are concerning as well and both are high priorities as the staff in the final seven months of recruiting the Class of 2015. But with how they've addressed needs over the past few classes, there's growing confidence that they will fill those holes.

Illinois may not have the list of four- and five-star prospects, the type that excite fans, on their commitment list page. But they are stacking Big Ten quality prospects - and keeping them in the program so far - at most positions.

That'll make practice better, which should make the players better.

That'll make special teams better.

That'll keep players fresher.

That'll make injuries easier to handle.

That'll make Illinois tougher to handle on Saturday.

That'll, hopefully, lead to more wins.

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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