Crisis Averted

Despite Coach Keith Gilmore leaving weeks prior to national signing day, Illinois addressed a critical need by landing six defensive linemen in the 2013 class.

CHAMPAIGN - An area in dire need of help, the Illinois recruiting effort along the defensive line was placed in jeopardy when Coach Keith Gilmore left for North Carolina two weeks before national signing day.

Still without a coach in place, Illinois added six defensive linemen in the 2013 recruiting class, with five high school recruits signing letters-of-intent Wednesday to join junior college transfer and early enrollee Abe Cajuste.

"It was a little bit different because we still don't have a d-line coach and we had four d-linemen committed," recruiting coordinator Alex Golsesh said. "In that part of it, it was tough."

The plan all along was to secure five or six ends and interior-types to provide depth for a unit losing Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence.

The Illini had Cajuste already on campus and locked into the class when Gilmore made his move. But there were four players - Merrick Jackson, Jarrod Clements, Bryce Douglas and D.J. Smoot - with intentions of signing the first Wednesday of February. Miami Norland star Paul James was a crucial fifth target the Illini staff was trying desperately to convince to join the fold.

Gilmore, known for coaching first round picks in Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus at Illinois, was supposed to mentor this next wave of players.

With Gilmore leaving, Coach Tim Beckman and Golesh set out to keep the class on schedule with tactics that included nearly the entire staff.

Thanks to his state connections, Golesh was already the lead man with Ohio natives Smoot and Clements. Linebackers Coach Mike Ward kept in touch with Jackson.

The message?

"That we're going to hire the best guy that we can," Golesh said. "That's what I know coach Beck's trying to do, and you know we got (Defensive coordinator Tim) Banks a little bit more involved with those kids right there at the end."

Douglas, whose father played basketball for the Illini in the 1980s, already had made his mind up. He wasn't a tough sell.

As for Paul, Beckman, Banks and running backs coach Tim Salem all spent time pitching Illinois as the place to be.

The trio received a helping hand from current defensive linemen Teko Powell, who also attended Miami Norland.

"If anybody recruited Paul James, it was Teko Powell," Golesh said. "I'll give him all the credit in the world. I don't know how many phone calls he made. We never asked him to make a phone call, but every day he'd come in and say, 'I think Paul's coming. I think Paul's coming.' That's a big deal."

In the end, Gilmore leaving didn't hurt the outcome. Those on the Illinois staff landed the players they wanted all along.

"I think those guys were committed to Illinois and not so much a specific position coach," Golesh said. "I think losing Keith, Keith was a good football coach. Keith has a done a lot of good here; has put quite a few guys in the NFL. I don't know if it was tough, but I think it was just a matter of getting on the horn, getting in touch with those kids, continuing to sell the program rather than one coach. Selling the program, selling the family, selling the university, less than selling one specific coach."

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