Checking in on the JUCOs

An update on the five junior college players that enrolled at Illinois in January, including an educated projection on the role each will play this season.

DL Abe Cajuste

What exactly can't Abe Cajuste do? I personally think he should wear a single digit number just in case he needs to run the ball down near the goal line. OK, so maybe that's a stretch, but Big Abe, all 6-foot-3, 295 pounds of him, has been a team player since arriving at Illinois. When Houston Bates got hurt in spring, the defense literally didn't have enough Leos to practice. Seriously. So Abe moved over. Watching him drop into coverage wasn't exactly a thing of beauty, but he tried his best anyway. He's also spent time at defensive end and both tackle spots. While all that moving and mixing has probably stunted his growth to some degree, he's the true definition of a defensive lineman.

The bottom-line: Abe needs to play big this season. The defensive line is probably the weakest position group on the team, at least that's the way it looks heading into the season opener. Stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback are two things that must happen in order to win. Abe may not start, but he's going to play a lot. He needs to move people and make plays.

STAR Eric Finney

Finney injured his knee the first week of training camp after earning the starting Star spot in spring drills. At first I didn't understand the magnitude of the injury because Finney himself has never played in a Big Ten game and didn't even suit up in junior college last season after injuring his knee. But after talking to some of his teammates, I realized that Finney was respected for the way he came in and earned that spot. He worked hard and didn't have an attitude upon enrolling. In other words, he was able to blend into the group naturally while letting his play make him stand out.

The bottom-line: The defense needs Finney to be ready to go sooner than later. With depth lacking, this wasn't a plug and play or next man up situation. B.J. Bello and James Crawford, natural to the spot, have never played in a game before. Linebacker Mike Svetina has, but let's face it, he's a linebacker. Finney is the right size, at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, has the right skill-set and a good attitude -- it will be nice to see what type of player he develops into.

DB Zane Petty

Petty enrolled early but didn't gain the full benefits of the move after injuring himself and missing most of spring drills. Still, Petty has received time with the No. 2 defense to this point in August and has been said to still be picking up everything that playing safety in Tim Banks defense entails.

The bottom-line: Clearly Petty was recruited and chose Illinois to make an impact as soon as possible. At the present moment, it doesn't look like he'll unseat starters Earnest Thomas and Taylor Barton. But that's OK. That means there's competition for those two spots. Petty is certainly a good athlete still with upside, so there's time for him to make his move.

WR Martize Barr

One heck of an athlete, Barr came to Illinois to play wideout after helping Iowa Western to a junior college national title in 2012. Immediately making noise in spring drills, Barr has continued to impress in training camp and is routinely on the field with the No. 1 offense. An explosive looking player with plenty of burst, Barr is usually in the slot and should be in the mix to the lead the team in yards-after-the-catch.

The bottom-line: Barr has to make plays this season. The wide receiver corps is diverse, but Barr, even though standing only 6-foot, appears to be one of the most complete weapons on the team. He'll need to make tough catches over the middle and will probably run plenty of drag or short routes to help the offensive line and quarterbacks. What Bill Cubit needs is for Barr to be able to turn short pass and catches into long runs for big play gains.

OL Dallas Hinkhouse

Hinkhouse, too, played a key role in that Iowa Western national title run last season, helping to lead the way for an offense that ranked first in the nation in points and yards per game. Currently, the junior is working with the second-team offensive line at both tackle spots, but mostly on the left side. With Corey Lewis taking reps off to rest his knees, Hinkhouse and some others have received increased practice time in order to get as many players as ready as possible.

The bottom-line: Hinkhouse needs to gain more weight before he's ready to handle the bright lights. He's listed at 275 -- I'm not sure if he's there yet. It might be best to give him this year off in order to put on the weight necessary to compete for a larger role down the road.

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