CHAMPAIGN - Usually recruiting classes point toward hope for the future. Illinois football's most recent recruiting class is mostly about the present.
The Illini Class of 2014 appears all-in for the 2014 season. On the surface, there's not much for Illini fans to get excited about with the 18-man class. Too few stars (no four- or five-star prospects). Too low in the class rankings (72nd nationally and 13th among 14 Big Ten teams).
So Illinois head coach Tim Beckman didn't win the Signing Day press conference on Wednesday. But he's counting on the 2014 class, especially the five junior-college prospects, to help him win on a few more Saturdays this fall.
Click HERE to read the rest of the article from Orange and Blue news columnist Jeremy Werner.
Strengths of the class
The Illini graduated their top three wide receivers - Steve Hull, Miles Osei, and Spencer Harris, as well as Ryan Lankford who missed the final five game due to injury.
The staff was able to replenish the receiving corps through recruiting, bringing in one of the best groups of wide-outs in the Big Ten. It's clearly the strength of the class.
Iowa Western JUCO All-American Geronimo Allison is already on campus as an early enrollee and early reports are very positive. G-Mo is the most ready to play of the incoming receivers and should start from day one.
The other JUCO is Tyrin Stone-Davis, who sat out last year at Piece C.C. in California to preserve a year of eligibility. Some scouting services had Stone-Davis ranked in the top five nationally among JUCO wide receivers. He's not as polished as Allison, but is a long-striding deep threat who can go up and get the football.
The Illini also signed two high school wide receivers, both All-State performers from Illinois. Malik Turner from Sacred-Heart Griffin is our pick for most under-rated player in the Illinois class of 2014. He has 4-star physical ability and put up 4-star numbers. First team All-State, state champion, and over 1,300 yards receiving. (How does that add up to a 3-star ranking? Your guess is as good as mine).
Mike Dudek is another stat stuffer, finishing his career at Neuqua Valley as the school's record-holder for receptions, receiving yards and TDs. He caught 69 passes for 1,384 yards and 19 TDs as a senior in 2013. Uber-quick feet and great hands make Dudek a great fit in Bill Cubit's quick-strike offense.
Improving the rushing defense is the No. 1 offseason priority for Illinois - they finished last in the Big Ten in stopping the run this past season. Defensive tackle Jihad Ward is a big bodied athlete who matches up well with Big Ten O-linemen and is capable of defending two gaps and clogging the line of scrimmage. There's a lot of pressure on Ward to be a difference maker, but he has the confidence to handle it.
We love Lincoln-Way East interior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti and believe he has a chance to be a 4-year starter at Illinois. Allegretti was a U.S. Army All-American. That said, the class lacks depth at offensive line, putting a lot of pressure on the staff to land a stellar group of linemen in 2015, a few of whom may have to play early.
Check out the Orange Crush 'Em Board for our analysis of each 2014 signee.
Recruiting to the system:
Tim Banks 4-2-5 scheme demands players with some specific skill sets. He employs two inside linebackers, and they need to be players with length who can stuff the run. Adding size to the position was a priority, and they were able to do that with Austin Roberts, Henry McGrew, and Tre Watson.
The "Leo" position is one of the spots where Illinois needs a playmaker - a hybrid linebacker / defensive end similar to the rush linebacker you will see in an NFL 3-4 scheme. JUCO Carroll Phillips should be a solid pass rusher, and 2013 recruit Paul James is back in the fold, adding two candidates to compete with last season's starter Houston Bates.
Illinois did not sign a "star" in this class, and will head into the 2014 season with Mike Svetina, James Crawford, and Eric Finney as the prime candidates to play the hybrid linebacker / safety position.
Losing tight end Jordan Frazier to Oklahoma State late wasn't a death blow - he's a two star kid with potential. But TE now becomes a need position for Illinois in 2015. Luckily, there are some talented candidates on the radar.
Over the last few days, we have seen wide receivers Dudek and Turner mentioned as "sleepers" in this class. Those guys aren't really sleepers - they were each All-State football players who were very productive in high school and won at a high level.
The true sleeper in this class is 2-star linebacker Tre Watson from Tampa (Fla.) Catholic. Similar to DT Akeem Spence a few years ago, Watson road things out but never did pick up offers from the in-state power schools in Florida.
We see Watson as the Ian Thomas of the class - a fundamentally sound middle linebacker who will be a leader on the field. Thomas was second on the team in tackles as a senior in 2011 and was selected honorable mention All-Big Ten.
Like Thomas, Watson produces. He had 164 tackles and 8.5 sacks as a senior as was named to the Class 3A All-State team. He was also selected defensive MVP of the 2014 Blue-Gray All-America Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
In their own words
Matt Domer: "First and foremost, I want to be a great teammate and a great student. And I want to be a leader - that's the role I played at Mt. Carmel. Our coach taught us to win, and Coach Beckman wants me to bring that to the team. I'm quick and fast in space. I'm going to try to get adjusted the speed of the game as quickly as I can."
Julian Hylton: "I'm just really excited to be able to work with the coaches there, and start a new chapter in my life. I just want to make sure I'm ready. I bring athleticism, and I'm going to try to make plays on the ball and make big plays when I need to. Whatever position the coaches what me to play will be okay with me."
Tito Odenigbo: "I'm pretty pumped up and happy to be signed with the Illini. I have the flexibility to be able to play both D-tackle and D-end. I still have some more weight to put on. I'm pretty good with my pass rush, getting to the quarterback."
Nick Allegretti: "It was a real cool feeling to sign. I know I've been committed for a while, but it's nice to finally be done (with recruiting). I sent my papers in at 7:03 in the morning. Right after I signed I talked to Coach Beckman and Coach Ward, and they welcomed me into the family."
Henry McGrew: "I'm just really excited to get to Illinois and start my career there. I talked to Coach Beckman after I got everything signed and faxed over. He just wanted to congratulate me and he said he couldn't wait for me to get there. They have me pegged to play inside linebacker. I think I bring good size and physical-ness, a lot of hard work."
The ones who got away
Tanner Farmer, offensive guard, Highland (Ill.) (Nebraska)- Farmer grew up an Illini fan, so this is an in-state 4-star type that you hope to land.
Trent Sherfield, defensive back, Danville (Ill.) (Vanderbilt)- Sherfield would have filled the need of a big cornerback that the Illini wanted in the class.
Madre London, running back, Fort Lauderdale (Fla.), St. Thomas Aquinas, (Michigan St.) - The Illini were it until the end for this physical back. He would have complimented Matt Domer nicely.
Enoch Smith Jr., defensive tackle, Chicago Mt. Carmel (Michigan State) - Signs pointed to Illinois early, but Smith is headed to East Lansing. Illinois needed a high school DT in the class.
Other newcomers round it out
Rivals.com won't count them when the team recruiting rankings for 2014 care calculated, but the Illini add three key pieces to their roster for the upcoming season.
Wes Lunt: Yep, all eyes are on the Oklahoma St. transfer. Program saver? I don't know about all that, but certainly a program changer. The Illini haven't had a big pocket passer with Lunt's arm strength since? Well, in a long time. While fans may be in "wait and see" mode, those of us who saw Lunt at Camp Rantoul last August don't need a lot of convincing that he will be a very successful quarterback at Illinois.
Lunt's strengths are his big arm and pocket presence. He sets up in a hurry, is smooth and cool in the pocket, and has the size to survey the entire field. As a true freshman at Oklahoma State, Lunt had the usual ups and down that you would expect, but the ups were very, very good. Like most frosh, he had a tendency to force a few balls, but maturity and experience should alleviate that issue.
No reason to hold anything back…we expect Lunt to put up big numbers in the passing game.
Dami Ayoola: Depth at running back has taken a serious blow in the last couple of seasons. And with senior-to-be Donovonn Young struggling last season, Illinois really needed a shot in the arm at the position. They hoped to add a high school power back in addition to Domer, but they were not going to reach when they missed on the top targets.
Enter Ayoola, the 2011 signee out of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas who was previously dismissed for violation of team rules. Ayoola might have been the Illini's best between-the-tackles runner a year ago had he played. Ayoola will participate in the upcoming spring drills. If he takes care of business and is fully reinstated, Ayoola adds more than just depth - he has the potential to be a difference maker for Illinois this fall.
Paul James: In recruiting circles, we talk about the "eye test" and how a kid looks "on the hoof" to describe the physical presence of a player. Few on the Illini roster are more impressive out of uniform than James, a big nasty dude who plays the role of Big Ten quarterback eater very nicely. Now he needs to perform.
James has the physique to play the hybrid "Leo" spot, or with his hand on the ground at strong side defensive end - which is where we like him. Illinois was 11th in the Big Ten (15) in sacks in 2013, a number than should increase significantly with the addition of James, Carrols Phillips, and Jihad Ward, and the development of DJ Smoot, Jarrod Clements, and Teko Powell.
Top recruiting victories
Orange and Blue News takes a look at the top signings by the Fighting Illini over the last 10 years, including three top quarterbacks.
Arrelious Benn, 2007 WR, Washington (D.C.) Dunbar - Ron Zook and Mike Locksley made a huge splash landing this 5-star talent over some of the perennial college football powers. Rivals.com ranked Benn the No. 5 WR and No. 24 player overall in the class of 2007. Already a physical specimen as a high school player, Benn was the most dynamic player-maker Illinois fans had seen in the Orange & Blue in some time. Offers: Notre Dame, Florida State, Maryland, Miami (Fla.).
Corey Liuget, 2008 DT, Hialeah (Fla.) -Illini assistant Reggie Mitchell went to south Florida and beat the in-state power schools and the SEC for Liuget, a major coup for Illinois football. Liuget's 6.0 Rivals ranking put him on the cusp of 5-star status, and he was ranked the No. 80 player in the 2008 class. Offers: Florida St., Miami (Fla.), LSU, Georgia, South Carolina.
Martez Wilson, 2007 DE, Chicago Simeon - Another 5-star in the exemplary Illini class of 2007 that ranked No. 20 in the nation and 4th in the Big Ten. Wilson was a USA Today first-team All-American and a Parade All-American. He moved to LB at Illinois and became an All-Big Ten performer and NFL draft pick. Offers: Florida, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC.
Terry Hawthorne, 2009 WR, East St. Louis (Ill.) - Illini fans still wonder what Hawthorne could have done at Illinois on offense. He was one of the most explosive receivers in the nation at East St. Louis. The Illini switched him to CB. Hawthorne committed to Illinois in July 2008, but wasn't completely locked up until his official visit two weeks before signing day. Offers: Arizona, Kansas, Kansas St. Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas Tech.
Rashard Mendenhall, 2005 RB, Skokie (Ill.) Niles West - The first top recruit of the Zook era, Mendenhall committed to Illinois in August of 2003. He stuck with the Illini after Ron Turner was fired following the 2004 season. A big factor was that Mendenhall's brother Walter was a freshman at Illinois. Offers: Arizona, Arizona St., Northwestern.
Nathan Scheelhaase, 2009 QB, Kansas City (Mo.) Rockhurst - Scheelhaase's 4-star rating put expectations through the roof - Rivals.com ranked him the 7th best dual threat QB in the nation. He wasn't quite that kind of player. But in hindsight, Scheelhaase became a well-accomplished four-year starter at Illinois, leading them to two bowl games. Offers: Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Stanford.
Isiah Williams, 2006 QB, Chicago Vocational - Recruited by Reggie Mitchell, "Juice" became the face of the Illini program, leading them to the 2008 Rose Bowl. Because he committed to Illinois early - May 2005 - Wiliams didn't pile up too many offers. But he was ranked the No. 80 player in the nation and No. 2 in Illinois behind Notre Dame recruit Demetrius Jones from Morgan Park. Offers: North Carolina.
Aaron Bailey, 2013 QB, Bolingbrook (Ill.) - The 4-star Bailey was always high on Illinois. The only wrinkle effecting his recruitment was the transition from Ron Zook to Tim Beckman. When he felt comfortable with the new staff, Bailey committed in the spring of his junior year of high school. Bailey checked in at No. 159 in the Rivals250 for 2013. Offers: Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin.
Graham Pocic, 2008 OT, Lemont (Ill.) - Pocic is a poster boy for the type of in-state players Illinois needs to land consistently. He ranked as the No. 5 player in Illinois and the No. 23 offensive tackle nationally. Pocic went on to be a 3-year starter at center for the Illini. Offers: Florida, Michigan, Penn St., Tennessee, Wisconsin.
Jon Davis, 2011 ATH, Louisville (Ky.) Eastern - Assistant Jeff Brohm, who is from Louisville, flipped Davis on signing day in 2011. He had been verbally committed to Kentucky since Dec. 2009. Davis was ranked the No. 31 athlete in the nation. Offers: Louisville, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Oregon.
Michael Buchanan, 2009 SDE, Homewood (Ill.) Homewood-Flossmoor - Illinois got a late pledge from Buchanan the night before National Signing Day in Feb. 2009. He chose the Illini from a final list of three that included Purdue and Vanderbilt. Buchanan played the hybrid bandit / Leo at Illinois. Offers: Arizona, Cal, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Purdue, Vanderbilt.
Whitney Mercilus - 2008 DE, Akron (Ohio) Garfield - As a three-star prospect, Mercilus was a major steal for Illinois who did a great job evaluating him. He was a raw athlete who made himself into an All-American for the Illini. Mercilus named a top three of Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois in Oct. 2007. When the Buckeyes and Wolverines didn't come through with offers, he fell into the Illini's lap. Zook and O-line coach Eric Wolford locked him up. Offers: Cincinnati, Kansas, Michigan State, Purdue, Syracuse.
Justin Green, 2009 CB, Louisville (Ill.) Male - Green pulled off one of the biggest 2009 National Signing Day shockers when he backed out of a commitment to Ohio State and inked with the Illini. Assistant Kurt Beathard, who had coached at Eastern Kentucky, tapped into those connections to land Green. Offers: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Louisville, Miami (Fla.), Tennessee.
Dami Ayoola, 2012 RB, Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas - Ron Zook's future was in serious doubt in the fall of 2011 when he and assistant Joe Gilbert landed Ayoola from Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. After Zook was let go, Ayoola took visits to Notre Dame and Boston College, but decided to stick with the Illini. Offers: Auburn, Cincinnati, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Notre Dame.
Vontae Davis, 2006 CB, Washington (D.C.) Dunbar - Former Illini assistant Mike Locksley opened up a pipeline to D.C., and Davis was one of the first he landed. Davis picked Illinois over Maryland, where his brother Vernon played before becoming a star at the next level in the NFL. Offers: Maryland, Michigan State, Virginia.
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