Final Word: Recruiting about to heat up
CHAMPAIGN — Recruiting will consume most of the Illinois coaches’ lives starting almost immediately after Saturday’s final regular season game against Northwestern.
Tim Beckman and his staff will hit the road Sunday through next Friday, then reconvene in Champaign-Urbana next weekend before taking to the road again.
“It’s nuts,” Beckman said. “I’ll be all over this country. It’s important for us to see the players that are coming in early, so I’ve got to make the home visits and all those types of things.”
Illinois has 14 commits from 11 high school players and three junior college players in the Class of 2014. Don’t expect many more additions before Signing Day on Feb. 5. Players who are expected to enroll early, like quarterback Chayce Crouch from Newark (Ohio) Catholic and wide receiver Mike Dudek from Neuqua Valley, can sign letters of intent in mid-December.
“We’re just about full with the commitments that we have now,” said Beckman, who will serve as the keynote speaker Wednesday night at the Tom Lemming Underclassmen All-Area Team Banquet at Soldier Field. “With the limited numbers, you can go ahead and start working on 2015. Everything’s become so much faster, but we want to make sure we secure this class with the needed positions that we have to have for next year.”
Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said the staff has used all 42 evaluation days it could use from Sept. 1 through today. Now comes an even busier stretch of recruiting.
“The plan for Coach Beck is to see all the possible mid-year kids first,” Golesh said. “We’ll use these two weeks to see those guys, and then in January we’ll kind of go see the rest of our commits and try to fill the rest of our class out. Our priority is obviously 2014, and as we’re in those areas, we’re going to hit the top 2015 kids, whether we’ve offered them or are still recruiting them.”
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The top recruit in the Class of 2013 has had moderate success in limited action this season. Freshman quarterback Aaron Bailey heads into today’s finale with 83 rushing yards on 20 carries and three touchdowns to go along with 2 of 5 completions for 4 yards and a touchdown in nine games. He hasn’t played in the last two games after running twice for minus-1 yard Nov. 9 at Indiana.
“It’s a little bit (frustrating) because obviously you’re used to playing, but I don’t let it get to me,” Bailey said. “I felt the season has went well so far. I just have to do what I have to do when the time comes.”
The play of Nathan Scheelhaase, who is 35 yards from 3,000 passing yards this season and enters today’s game as the Big Ten’s leading passer, is a reason that Bailey hasn’t gotten off the sidelines the last two weeks.
“We’ve had a phenomenal senior year from Nathan,” Beckman said. “(Bailey) definitely did the things that we asked him to do. I wish there was probably a little bit more he could do as the season progressed, but that wasn’t up to Aaron. It was up to how well Nathan was playing.”
Bailey knows winter workouts will go a long way toward helping him in the competition to replace Scheelhaase that will feature transfer Wes Lunt and Reilly O’Toole.
“Nate has helped me out a lot, on and off the field,” Bailey said. “He’s a great mentor, great quarterback and great leader. I would say I’m looking forward to the workouts after the season, and after (today’s game), I can focus on the offseason and get ready to compete.”
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Bailey and O’Toole won high school state titles at Memorial Stadium, Bailey with Bolingbrook and O’Toole with Wheaton Warrenville South. Illinois has two in-state commits in the Class of 2014 — Chicago Mount Carmel running back Matt Domer and the Caravan will play for a Class 7A state title, and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin wide receiver Malik Turner and the Cyclones will play for a 5A state title — trying to end their careers with similar results. They just won’t get the chance to do so in Champaign.
Huskie Stadium at DeKalb is the site for the eight state title games this weekend. The 2014 state finals return to Memorial Stadium, with the two sites swapping hosting duties every other year through 2021. An easy way to remember this is that in odd years, DeKalb is the host city, and in even years, Champaign is the host. The change came when Nebraska was added to the Big Ten Conference, which caused a reshuffling of league schedules and means Illinois will host a home game the final weekend in November when the high school state championship games take place.
“I miss them not being here,” Beckman said. “I wish every year they’d be here. It’s a great opportunity to get these future Illini, as we say, on campus.”
“We want to host it here, but it’s out of our control,” he said. “The more kids you get on campus, that’s a great thing. I thought it was cool the first year we were recruiting, everybody in central Illinois talked about playing on the turf. They were referring to the stadium, and everybody up north was talking about getting downstate. It’s a neat deal.”
Beckman said he reached out to head coaches who have played or are playing in state title games this weekend in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
“I wished them luck because that’s definitely an honor for any program to be in a state championship,” he said.
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Illinois will wear orange jerseys, blue helmets and white pants today against the Wildcats. This is the first time all season the Illini will go with that uniform combination.
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Illinois held its customary late-afternoon walkthrough Friday at Memorial Stadium before having dinner at the Champaign Country Club and staying overnight at the Hawthorn Suites in Champaign.
The team held a Wednesday afternoon practice before it was served a Thanksgiving meal in the Colonnades Club at Memorial Stadium.
“The food’s good every year,” LEO Houston Bates said. “I love the cranberry sauce.”
The team practiced again early Thursday in Champaign before Beckman let players whose families are close to Champaign leave campus.
“The deal is they can travel as long as it’s in a three-hour radius, but they have to take somebody with them,” Beckman said. “If there’s a young man from Florida and can’t go home, somebody will take him home.”
The hearty Thanksgiving meal came five days after the team ate at the Beef House in Covington, Ind., last Friday afternoon before arriving at Purdue.
“I had never heard of (the Beef House), but the first thing they do is serve us some dinner rolls,” defensive end Tim Kynard said with a laugh. “Oh, man, that set the pace right there. It was a real good experience. We enjoyed it.”
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Kynard and linebacker Jonathan Brown are the only two seniors Illinois has started on defense this season. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks applauds the duo’s effort.
“The season hasn’t quite went the way we wanted it go, and they easily could have become a distraction and started sulking, but they’ve done nothing but be positive and continued to try to lead the young guys and telling them the future is bright if they continue to work hard,” Banks said. “I can’t thank them enough for just how they’ve contributed to the overall lessons we try to instill as coaches.”
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Beckman said he’ll meet with the team Sunday to discuss what to expect this offseason.
“There will be some weight workouts based on reps they had this season,” he said. “The ones that didn’t get as many reps will be working out more. Those non-mandatory player-run workouts will start in the indoor (practice facility) right away.”
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The first yards Scheelhaase gained in his Illinois career came on a 3-yard run against Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis during the 2010 season opener. Safe to say he’s added to the collection since that first carry, which featured San Francisco 49ers linebacker and former Tiger Aldon Smith contributing to the tackle.
Like 10,269 more yards. Scheelhaase’s 10,272 yards are second most in school history, only behind the 10,594 yards his predecessor, Juice Williams, accumulated. Scheelhaase surpassed the 10,000-yard mark in his career last Saturday at Purdue.
“It’s something I’ll look back on and tell my kids someday,” Scheelhaase said. “I’m sure they’ll probably think it’s a whole lot of yards and wonder, when I’m not as athletic at that point, how the heck I even did it.”
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Donations will be taken for victims of the deadly tornadoes that swept across the state Nov. 17.
Red Cross volunteers will be positioned inside the entrances at Memorial Stadium to take monetary donations to assist with relief efforts.
“Many of the people who suffered damage are directly connected to many of us within the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, bringing this even closer to home,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said. “We hope our fans donate generously to help support the relief for all those who have been affected.”
Red Cross signs will mark the donation locations as fans enter Memorial Stadium. Cash and checks will be accepted, with checks being made out to the Champaign County Red Cross, with Illinois tornado victims written in the memo section.