Tate: Recruiting bummer no cause for panic
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CHAMPAIGN – Whew! Football recruiting is in the rearview mirror. Not very encouraging for the Illini, was it? Ron Zook and his new gang salvaged what they could with 21 signees, mostly from distant precincts. It fell short of his previous standards.
But for those of us living in the now, we'll worry about 2012 later. Meanwhile, Zook has plenty of talent returning from more highly ranked classes to make things interesting for the two years that matter, the next two.
No, this is not a prediction that Illinois will defeat Missouri, Penn State and Ohio State early next season, or that the "winnable" home dates with Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota will be walkovers. And you'll never find a prediction that Illinois will defeat Northwestern. Let's not go overboard. But coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning have tested athletes to work with as they make innovations that will draw attention right through the spring game April 24.
Yes, there are question marks. A new pro-style attack will put three young quarterbacks – Jacob Charest, Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer – on relatively equal footing in the duel for Juice Williams' position. The defense will have a new look with Dan Disch sharing linebacking coaching duties with newcomer Ron West. Zook wouldn't hire a full-time coach to handle one position. What that tells us is that the UI, short of defensive linemen, may be leaning toward a 3-lineman, 4-linebacker look with Martez Wilson taking on a Simeon Rice role – it's called Bandit – in which he'll rush from an end position at times and also drop in coverage.
It is unfortunate that Koenning must prepare his new scheme while withholding Wilson, standout end Clay Nurse and safeties Miami Thomas and Garrett Edwards this spring. Look for 6-foot-6 DE Michael Buchanan, undersized but quick, to train at Wilson's likely position this spring.
Young and experienced
My board has roughly 60 players, many of whom played last season, with legitimate shots to contribute. And most of them will be back for the eight home games in 2011.
Up front, the only seniors in my two-deep tight end and O-line positions are Randall Hunt and Ryan Palmer. So 10 of the top 12 at these positions have at least two remaining seasons, and possible starters Hugh Thornton, Graham Pocic and Tyler Sands have three. Any O-lineman under 300 pounds is unusual, so there's nothing to be pessimistic about there.
Hard-running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford are already tested as upcoming juniors, and new backfield coach DeAndre Smith will be looking for ways to work in fleet sophomore Justin Green. Again, they're young but experienced.
And while waiting for the freshmen to arrive, late-season starters Fred Sykes and Jack Ramsey head up a seven-man receiving corps with just three seniors: Jarred Fayson, Eddie McGee and Chris James.
Defensively, we won't be able to judge the trenches until we see if Nurse is fully healthy and whether huge tackle Josh Brent gets his grades in shape at Parkland. Repeating, the D-line is thin. But it could be adequate if two touted Floridians, 290-pound junior Corey Liuget and redshirted 280-pound Akeem Spence (those are 2009 weights), meet expectations. Beyond that, my unofficial check finds 20 linebackers and defensive backs who have played previously ... of which 12 have started: Edwards, Martez Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Nate Bussey, Russ Ellington, Ian Thomas, Evan Frierson, Miami Thomas, Ashante Williams, Walt Aikens, Terry Hawthorne and Travon Bellamy.
Don't misrepresent this message. This isn't a prediction of great things to come. The Big Ten is too good (four bowl wins against Top 15 teams) at the top, and the UI's recent missteps too fresh. It is rather to point out that whatever misgivings Illini Nation may have about a disjointed recruiting campaign – seven publicized decommits – Zook and his staff have plenty of experienced talent to work with.
On the strategy side, the new hybrid approach to the defense will give rivals something to think about. We can look for more pass-rush blitzes coming from different angles.
Both coordinators will have their fingers on the hot buttons. Koenning will be in charge of a secondary that has been in desperate need of a lift. And Petrino will handle the receivers who, as he pointed out, "can inspire the entire team when they start catching passes." Petrino will do his best to see to that.
Quarterback is anyone's guess. Charest has experience so he'll get the early call. But there is a belief among some departed staffers that Scheelhaase possesses the mobility, smarts and accuracy to steal the position. All three QBs come highly regarded. Scheelhaase was a four-star pick by Scout.com and Rivals.com, and he has four years remaining.
Illinois may not be a title contender but is a lot more prepared for the future than one mediocre recruiting year might indicate.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.