It was a strange recruiting year for the Illinois football team, one of the most unusual in memory. It was actually two years in one, with former coach Ron Zook and his staff doing the work most of the year, and new coach Tim Beckman and staff coming in at the last minute to salvage what they could at the last minute.
First the good news. Illinois signed 19 players to scholarship tenders February 1st, and all have a chance to help the program down the road. The Illini especially needed help in the defensive backfield, running back, linebacker and defensive tackle, and these needs were addressed. And they got a top-flight kicker to replace graduated senior Derek Dimke.
The defensive backfield needed more depth. Six of the newcomers should fill that need. The Illini have only three upperclassmen scholarship cornerbacks, so V'Angelo Bentley, Justin Hardee and Jevaris Little are welcome additions. Bentley is quick and aggressive and doubles as a kick returner. Hardee and Little are taller but have the speed to cover deep.
New safeties Taylor Barton and B.J. Bello will be given a chance to help early. Barton is a big hitter with the smarts to prevent the deep play. Bello is a rangy 6'-2" and has grown to 210 pounds. He can help there if he doesn't grow into a linebacker. Both will have a chance to compete for playing time this fall.
Floridian Tajarvis Fuller committed early and stayed firm during the coaching change. He enrolled for second semester classes and is making a rapid adjustment to college life. He will likely start out at the Star position, a hybrid nickel back/linebacker.
There isn't much depth at the two inside linebacker spots either, so Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina and T.J. Neal are valued for their abilities. None are real tall, but they all have a nose for the ball and are hard hitters. They also have leadership skills.
The Illini would have taken a third defensive tackle, but Vontrell Williams and Teko Powell can both compete early for playing time. They both have the quickness for the 3-technique position. Williams has always loved his home state school and served a strong role in helping convince his future teammates to agree. And Powell starred for big school Florida State champ Miami Norland.
Offensively, running backs Dami Ayoola, Lakeith Walls and Devin Church provide the numbers needed at a position that requires plenty of depth. Injuries to runners are common, and Beckman would like 5-6 backs on his roster at all times. Only three varsity members return, so all three have opportunities to play as freshmen.
Ayoola comes from perennial power St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida. His senior stats aren't impressive, in part because his team usually played reserves much of the time. He is a skilled and strong inside runner who can also make people miss.
LaKeith Walls is tall and rangy and will likely grow into a much larger back with time. He is also a proven sprinter. He tends to run a little too straight up at times, but you can't teach speed. The Illini lured him away from North Carolina State.
Devin Church is a smaller, quicker back who will likely play slot at Illinois. In that capacity, he can both run and catch the ball, allowing him to use his shiftiness in the open field. His high school highlights are impressive.
Tight end Daniel Rhodes graduated a year ago and sat out a semester prior to his enrollment at Illinois in January. He wants to play tight end and is a good blocker.
The former staff recruited him as a possible fullback, but that position isn't valued in new Illini offensive schemes. His build suggests he might eventually move either to offensive guard or defensive line.
J.J. Robertson is the only wide receiver in the class. One of the few Illinois products who remained loyal to his state school, Robertson has the quickness and speed to be an excellent player.
The two offensive linemen who signed with the Illini were Robert Bain and Joe Spencer. Neither is real tall, so they may both end up at the interior three spots. But both are aggressive players who sustain their blocks until the play concludes.
Last but not least, Ryan Frain is the heir apparent field goal kicker for the Illini. The Indianapolis product has a strong, accurate leg. He is also an outstanding punter, but he will start out competing with three walkons for the kicker job.
Unfortunately, the Illini signing class does not rank high among Big 10 teams. Part of that is the small class size, and part is the fact there are no 4 or 5-star players. A few may be that good but were not evaluated extensively by recruiting gurus. However, there were a large number of great ones who got away.
The state of Illinois was not kind to the home state school. The best players all snubbed the UI for out-of-state powers. That list includes Jordan Diamond, Antonio Morrison, Tommy Schutt, Jordan Westerkamp, Wes Lunt, Faith Ekakitie, Jaleel Johnson, Dan Voltz, Maurice Fleming, David Smith, Ryan Ward, Vincent Valentine and Tevin Coleman.
There were a number of reasons for the exodus. By far the biggest was all the rumors, eventually confirmed, that Zook would be fired. The negative vibe around the program was exploited by competitors, scaring many prospects away from the program.
The state of Illinois is a melting pot, so the Illini will likely never dominate state recruiting. There are a number of people in the Chicago area and elsewhere with agendas to send players to other programs, and some of them are extremely effective in steering players away from Illinois.
Over a number of years, they have created a perception that Illinois will never be an elite program. The Illini don't have enough high school coaches and others of influence to push impressionable youngsters toward Illinois.
InsideIllini follows recruiting closely. We have long lists of players who considered Illinois but declined. We became friendly with a number of the players, but in the end it was wasted effort.
For instance, the Illini focused on four quarterbacks for this class. They already have four qbs on campus, so they didn't need someone to be a career backup. Cyler Miles, Tyler Cameron, Skyler Mornhinweg and Lunt all turned down the Illini, but the former staff felt it had a chance for them at one point.
Lunt broke their hearts when he fell in love with Oklahoma State. Mornhinweg's dad coached former UI quarterback coach Jeff Brohm in the NFL, so there was a close connection. Miles continued to contact the UI even after committing to Washington. His big fear was Zook being fired, so that reality prevented any chance of landing him.
The former staff had strong ties to the South and Southeast, and those were mostly lost with the transition to a new set of coaches. Four-star linebacker Keith Brown from Miami had committed to the UI but changed his mind after the change.
Three-star safety Zach Jackson, a cousin of Illini tight end Evan Wilson, did the same. There may have been a couple others from that part of the country on the UI signing list had the original staff stayed.
Commits Joe Warburg and Elliot Faerber are not included either. Warburg was close with Brohm and wavered. When he decided to visit other schools, he was dropped. Faerber may have experienced a similar situation.
The new Illini staff was able to add late additions Church, Walls, Little, Hardee, Bentley, Bello, Svetina and Neal. Several decommitted from other schools in favor of the UI. The new Illini coaches appear loaded with recruiting ability, but it was too late for their top prospects to switch allegiances to a new school.
It has been a long recruiting year. It was frequently frustrating, but it ended as well as it could have under the circumstances. InsideIllini has a renewed excitement about the future. Beckman and his staff have a new start, so there will be no negative recruiting about job status. And they are proven recruiters with ambition and plenty of energy to attract top talent to Champaign-Urbana.
We look forward to this time next year. If the Illini can show well on the field this fall, next year's recruiting haul could be exciting.