Let that sink in for a minute.
Under Tim Beckman, Illinois has landed the same number of junior college players in the last two years than Ron Zook and Ron Turner had in the prior 10 classes combined.
Now, out of those last ten years, some of those 9 junior college players did make some significant impacts.
Take Kelvin Hayden, for example. Hayden, who came to Illinois from Joliet Junior college as a receiver, made the switch to cornerback and is now a multi-year veteran in the NFL having played for the Colts, Bears, and others.
Another JUCO success was linebacker Antonio Steele. The third member of the linebacking corps during the Rose Bowl season a few years back with J Leman and Brit Miller, Steele was a multi-year starter and was counted upon just as much as anyone else.
And most recently, Trulon Henry, brother of former Illini Arrelious Benn, who came to Illinois from the College of DuPage. His past is another story in itself, but when he came to Illinois, he began at safety and finished at the SAM (or Star) linebacker position. Like Steele, Henry was also an important part of the defense.
But fast forward to the winter of 2011-2012, Tim Beckman replaces Ron Zook as the head coach at Illinois, and immediately notes a lack of ready depth on the roster at a few important positions. He'll be the first to tell you that that's no excuse for what happened on the field in 2012, but unless they as a staff went out and did something about it, it wouldn't get any better.
So rather than sit on their hands, the staff went out and signed six junior college players in the class of 2013. Much has been said about the difficulty of bringing junior college players to Illinois due to academic qualification standards, but the staff did their homework on these guys and only targeted players they knew would qualify academically.
The 2013 junior college class looks like this:
Martize Barr - likely the top receiver on the roster this year.
Abens Cajuste - the most highly-touted of the group, Cajuste provides much-needed depth in a college-ready body along the defensive front
Eric Finney - could easily start at the SAM linebacker position and was impressive during the spring according to Beckman
Dallas Hinkhouse - may not play right away, but has great feet and could be the future at left tackle
Trevor Kantemann - Was injured last season, but is a strong tight end who really flew under the radar
Zane Petty - a hard hitter on defense who will likely get some reps at safety or possibly corner
Of that group, Martize Barr will likely have the most impact early on, joining a receiver group with plenty of reps up for grabs.
Some are critical of the move to load up on junior college players, but on the other hand, the staff is bringing in players with some college experience who won't have as much of a long-term hold on the roster.
Most high school players end up redshirting at some point in their careers, meaning that they hold a scholarship for five years. Assuming a junior college player does not redshirt, they typically have either 2 or 3 years of eligibility, and complete that in a total of three years.
So in the past, where a player was signed, redshirted, and sat for four years, these junior college players expect to sign, play right away (or at least not redshirt) and then be on campus for two, maybe three years.
Long term, that makes a difference. Just look at what happened with the Mens Basketball program. Roster turnover and transfers completely changed the landscape of the program and set a foundation with both depth and talent.
2014 is turning into much the same when it comes to junior college recruiting. The coaches identified needs and have targeted players to fill those.
Also, Illinois hasn't really had a true man-to-man corner with the versatility to match up with a variety of receivers since Tavon Wilson played corner. So they targeted Tyrin's brother Tyree Stone-Davis, a 6'3" 200 pound corner, to fill that need.
Are junior college players a solution for any situation? Probably not. But Beckman and co. needed to bring in talent in a hurry to try and right the ship. Junior college players most likely are not the long-term answer. The most successful programs in the nation are made up mostly of high school players, but even they still take junior college players from time to time.
Illinois will still need to recruit high school athletes both in the Midwest and across the country, but right now, the influx of junior college players might just provide the spark, especially on offense, that the program needs to start turning things around.