CHAMPAIGN — Tim Beckman didn’t waste words explaining what he likes about Jihad Ward.
“Just about everything,” the Illinois coach said.
Ward, a junior college defensive tackle from Globe Tech in New York City, is the big-name recruit for Illinois in the Class of 2014. If a big name exists. No five-star recruits or a handful of four-star recruits line the 18-man class Beckman and his staff made official Wednesday.
“We really look forward to getting (Ward) on this campus and being involved in his life,” Beckman said. “He’s big. He can run. He definitely will help in an area that we really want to work on, and that’s with the defensive line and pass rushing.”
Or stopping the run, an area in which Illinois was worst in the Big Ten last season. Ward, at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, certainly passes the eye test of becoming a run-stopping lineman who can get after the quarterback.
His letter of intent was one of the last ones faxed Wednesday morning to the UI football offices at Memorial Stadium. When it did, exhales from the coaching staff were probably heard up and down Kirby Avenue.
“From the day he committed (in mid-December) to (Wednesday) morning, it was a (feeling of), ‘We hope he’s here, and we hope that letter comes in,’ because a lot of people were tugging at him,” Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said. “It was tough for him.”
Golesh first heard of Ward — who had offers from Tennessee and West Virginia — in October. He recruits the junior colleges on the East Coast and kept hearing the same refrain from various junior college coaches about who the best defensive lineman was. Ward’s name always came at the top of his list. Not just because of his size, either, although those attributes don’t hurt.
“He’s huge,” Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “That kid could be anywhere in the country and be one of the bigger guys there, so we’re ecstatic that we have him here.”
Ward, originally from Philadelphia, bonded quickly with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. Cubit, also originally from the Philadelphia area, does not have New York City among his primary recruiting areas. But Illinois, with a little push from Cubit, felt Cubit’s experience could pay dividends with Ward. It certainly did.
“I thought I could make a difference with that kid,” Cubit said. “When I first talked to him, you’ve got to get that wow factor initially. I was kidding with him and said, ‘Cheese Whiz or cheese on your cheesesteaks?’ because Philly has Cheese Whiz. You just don’t do it. I said, ‘Mustard on your pretzels?’ He said, ‘Yes, Coach.’ I thought, ‘Now, we’re getting somewhere.’ There was a ton of people coming after that kid, and he stuck with us the whole time. I give him a lot of credit.”
Beckman said Ward would gather eight of his teammates at Globe Tech early in the morning and make sure they would arrive on time for football practices and classes at Globe Tech, even though they lived an hour outside the city.
“When you find out these stories, you learn real quick about commitment,” Beckman said. “I know that he’s not only going to teach our football team but teach our coaching staff also about what needs to get accomplished for you to be successful in life. I can’t wait until this young man is here.”
Ayoola back with team. It looks like Dami Ayoola will get a second chance at Illinois.
The sophomore running back, who was dismissed from the team three days after the season opener against Southern Illinois for a violation of team rules, is back with the Illini. The Florida native rushed for 117 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns in 2012.
“He will be involved in the things we involve all of our student-athletes, but he’s still in that proving process to this football team and coaching staff,” Beckman said. “We always talk about being family. I’m never into just cutting and not giving somebody another chance. It’s up to him to perform the way he needs to.”
Beckman said Ayoola will take part in spring practices and the spring game, although his reps will be limited.
“When you watch him in the spring, you could make a case for him to be one of the better ones with his pass protection, his route running and his running style,” Cubit said. “He’s got a long way to come, though, because he’s been out a year. He’s got to get his act together off the field and on the field, too. These kids have been training here for six or seven months, and he hasn’t been doing that, but I’m glad he’s back. He has some work to do, but I have confidence in him.”
Hylton in mix at running back. All talk surrounding what position Julian Hylton will play at Illinois focused on his role at cornerback.
Turns out the Lincoln-Way North product might get a chance at running back. He rushed for 2,522 yards and 32 touchdowns, averaging more than 7 yards per carry, last fall for the Phoenix.
“We’re going to give him a shot,” Beckman said. “He rushed for enough yards as anybody rushed for, so we’ll give him that opportunity at that running back position.”
Homegrown talent. Hylton is one of five recruits from the state of Illinois. The others are Lincoln-Way East center Nick Allegretti, Chicago Mount Carmel running back Matt Domer, Neuqua Valley receiver Mike Dudek and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin receiver Malik Turner.
The rest of the Big Ten signed a combined 22 players from Illinois, with conference newcomers Maryland and Rutgers the only schools to not pick up one. Michigan State and Northwestern each had four Illinois players in their classes, with all four for the Spartans coming from the Chicago area.
“We’re making strides,” Beckman said. “We continue to build the numbers, from scholarship to walk-on. We can’t get them all. We understand that. Not all of them fit our program. We understand that. But we also understand that it’s very, very important to me that the Illinois (high school) football player is our first and foremost priority.”
Turner is the lone player south of Interstate 80 for Illinois. Locking up players from that part of the state is a key focus, according to Golesh.
“We talk a lot about if those kids leave, we’ve got a problem,” Golesh said. “You look back at the teams that have won here, they won (with players from) Springfield, Decatur and Danville. Those kids in central Illinois can’t leave.”
DB might fly solo. If Hylton winds up at running back, Chris James from West Orange-Stark (Texas) High School might end up becoming the only defensive back in this class. Tyree Stone-Davis is no longer part of the class because the Pierce College (Calif.) product did not complete the necessary academic requirements. Tyree’s twin brother, Tyrin, is still on board at Illinois, but the receiver won’t arrive until this summer.
Beckman and Banks were visiting James last week before getting stuck in bad weather near Houston.
“All of a sudden his father’s cellphone goes off, and he turns to me and he goes, ‘Coach Beck, we’re going to have problems here. They’re supposed to be closing roads and bridges. You need to head up north to Dallas, so you can get out of this ice storm that’s coming in,’ ” Beckman said. “I turned and looked at him and said, ‘You might be the first person I’ve ever spoken to that’s told me to head north to (avoid bad) weather.’ Me and Coach Banks got in the car and drove about five hours to Dallas. Thank goodness we got out of Houston. That might be one of those stories you always remember. Maybe it’s Chapter 17 or 18 of the book that we’re all trying to write.”
Making a list
The 2014 Illinois recruiting class didn’t receive a lot of love from the analysts. Here is where the Illini ranked according to the major scouting services and Bob Asmussen’s take on the assessments:
Big Ten: 13
Asmussen: Illini beat three teams on the 2014 schedule, including Purdue. So that’s got to be good.
Big Ten: 14
Asmussen: Newcomers Maryland and Rutgers zoomed past the Illini in their first year as Big Ten members.
Big Ten: 14
Asmussen: In four years, we will know if the experts were right, but the consensus is strongly against the Illinois program.