Tate: It's a long road back
“We sold playing time. We sold everything but two wins.”
— UI recruiter Alex Golesh
Tim Beckman’s football operation gets a fresh start (from 2-10) with four new coaches and 25 new scholarship faces, 10 of whom will participate in spring drills.
Questions are: Has the second-year coach corralled sufficient talent to break the tailspin, and is it asking too much for new additions to help immediately?
Like every Big Ten recruiting class except Ohio State and Michigan (and deep third Nebraska), the Illini freshmen aren’t packed with four-stars. You might call it so-so — somewhere between Nos. 40 and 50 nationally, and wedged in with a half-dozen other Big Ten schools — but, on deeper inspection, better than generally acknowledged.
One expert, Chicago analyst Edgy Tim O’Halloran, said: “The Illini got a couple of good instate prospects in Bolingbrook’s Aaron Bailey and O’Fallon’s Darius Mosley, but they got beat up pretty bad in Chicago. The best players from the Chicago area went elsewhere. The Illini compensated in Ohio.”
O’Halloran raves about Bailey, having followed the mobile QB since his freshman year. He calls the 220-pound standout “an exceptional athlete and a much more accurate passer than Juice Williams.”
But what about right now? Beckman, Golesh & Co. did yeoman’s work in replacing their in-state misses with strikes in Ohio, Florida and JC country, and filled in quickly for seven athletes who decommitted along the way.
“We just went to the next name on our board,” Golesh said. “We didn’t look back.”
As it stands, they’ll miss two promising defensive backs, Michigander Joshua Jones (North Carolina State) and Ohioan Reon Dawson (Michigan), but more than compensated for Purdue-bound Evan Panfil (Lincoln-Way Central) by signing a whopper in Miami defensive end Paul James.
When March 5 rolls around, the Illini will begin the task of fixing worrisome shortcomings in both lines and the defensive backfield.
Four OL additions, including juco transfer Dallas Hinkhouse, are getting an early start on campus. Hinkhouse is up 12 pounds already (in the high 260s) and may get a look at center. The three freshmen will probably need more time to bulk up although Golesh pinpoints Ohioan Austin Schmidt as “a sleeper.”
The only option for new line coach Jim Bridge is to lean heavily on Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras, and get everyone bigger, stronger and better. A year of muscle work can make a difference and, for Bill Cubit’s offensive unit, this is a must. The Illini need five (Cubit wants eight) revitalized bodies to emerge from a dozen returnees.
They’re big enough. They’ll average around 300 pounds. They carry the hopes for the season as Illinois returns quality tight ends, sufficient backfield talent and capable but as-yet unproductive receivers.
“I think the line got a bad rap last season,” said Cubit, former Western Michigan coach. “Sometimes it’s just a case of not being in sync, like the quarterback not getting the proper depth or the receivers not running to the right spot.”
Cubit produced extraordinary receivers at Western Michigan and, in his own words, “We did it with quarterbacks who didn’t have particularly powerful arms.”
Greg Jennings left Western in 2005 as the 11th collegian to top 1,000 yards in receptions three times. Jordan White had 234 catches for 3,289 yards and 27 TDs in his junior-senior seasons. He averaged more than one TD per game.
“If I was a wideout at Illinois, I’d see a chance to catch a lot of balls,” said Cubit. “Somebody is going to. Even last year (at WMU), we had a freshman ranked third in the nation before he got hurt. Our offense is all about personnel groupings. Jon Davis could be a tailback or a slot. Matt LaCosse is a tight end who could go outside. We need some receivers to step up. We’ve got to get better there.
“We are calling every position wide open. That’s the only fair way. We have new coaches, a new system and a lot of players we haven’t seen in action. As for quarterback, we’re looking for a guy who is accurate and makes good decisions.”
Nathan Scheelhaase returns as a three-year starter. Cubit mentioned that Scheelhaase may have knowledge of his offensive system since Illinois used a similar style when Scheelhaase broke in.
The Illini needed Akeem Spence to stick around. Like Whitney Mercilus and Corey Liuget before him, Spence left early. The interior bodies remain, but not the experience. It will boil down to veteran subs Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma trying to hold off second-year squadmen Vontrell Williams and Teko Powell, who in turn will face challenges from freshmen Jarrod Clements and Bryce Douglas ... with converted offensive lineman Robbie Bain thrown in.
Lots of beef here. How quickly can former Illini Greg Colby bring it to fruition?
Don’t look for Belleville Althoff’s monstrous Merrick Jackson in this mix. He co-signed with Iowa Western Community College and will attend there if his grades don’t stack up.
The film of Bruce Douglas’ son, chasing down ball carriers behind the line, is spectacular. Beckman was sold on Bryce in summer camp. The youthful Douglas could be special. O’Halloran says the Plainfield star has made strides in hardening a body that easily goes to 330 pounds.
At end, the Illini add a lot of needed muscle with JC husky Abe Cajuste, Ohioan Dawuane Smoot and the aforementioned James, who ranks alongside Bailey and Ohio DB Caleb Day as the top three freshmen. But there’s no denying the front four is a major rebuilding task without Spence, Michael Buchanan, Justin Staples and Glenn Foster. Wow, is it ever!
The line losses are matched by departures in the secondary: Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green, Supo Sanni and Jack Ramsey ... with former starter Steve Hull moving to receiver.
Beckman’s returning secondary was so thin he couldn’t complete a two-deep chart until Darius Mosley, Zane Petty and Dillan Cazley climbed aboard in January, and the coach has four more DBs coming in the fall.
My thoughts: For all their experience, the departing defensive backs had some rough days, and returnees V’Angelo Bentley and Earnest Thomas did well when given opportunities. Playing rookies in the secondary, even as backups, is asking for trouble. But backfield coach Steve Clinkscale has no choice.
In conclusion: Despite the misses north of Interstate 80, the incoming class announced by Beckman displays promise if they stay the course. But the team’s performance in 2013 is dependent on leaders like Scheelhaase, Davis, Darius Millines, Jonathan Brown and Tim Kynard, and the former reserves poised to step up. It is their job to hold the fort until the young troops come of age.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.