2014 Recruiting Class Thoughts: Defense

Illini Playbook takes an in-depth look at what Illinois has assembled in the 2014 recruiting class. No filter Fletch delves into the defensive side of the haul in this edition.

Howdy, howdy. In case you guys missed it, I covered the offensive side of the 2014 class of commitments a while back. You can read that here, including my skepticism regarding tight end/defensive end prospect Jordan Frazier. He since de-commited (or was cut loose) and has aligned himself with Oklahoma State.

If you read between the lines in the above story, I didn't like bringing him on board to begin with. I never understood that move considering tight end wasn't a glaring need and his offer sheet at the time was slightly better than that of my eight year-old sister. Good luck to him though.

On to the defense. I'm going to take a slightly different approach with this side of the ball…

I'm not going to name a best player in the class. But this group of players have to come in and make a difference right away. Not necessarily talking about starting (OK, I kinda am), but these guys need to be pressing for playing time from the jump: Jihad Ward, Carroll Phillips, Joe Fotu.

Ward is the headliner. He's the only four-star player in the class, and at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, is clearly the biggest of the bunch. I always wonder about guys that are that tall playing on the defensive line -- it's a battle for leverage down there, but at this point some dude's height is the least of Illinois' worries.

They need bodies. And able bodies. I'm not entirely sure why Abe Cajuste didn't work out last season. He switched positions more than Craig Biggio during the spring and then got hurt in August. He never made it on to the field for any meaningful playing time, something that I think dramatically hurt the overall effort. I mean, I'm close to going into all-out tangent mode, but… I love Jarrod Clements' upside and Teko Powell's, too, for that matter. But those guys were first and second year players. Cajuste was supposed to come in and ease their transition, erase that youth gap. Didn't happen. Not even close.

Sigh. Rant over.

So… guys like Ward, Phillips and Fotu can't pull a Cajuste. They've got to matter. If Jake Howe is playing next year, I'll… just stop talking for now.

OK, I'm intrigued: Tyree Stone-Davis. 6-foot-3, 190-pound defensive backs are like 7-footers in the NBA. They don't come along all that often and just the mere mention of the physical details makes you immediately think you've got a star in the making.

I don't know what to make of Tyree. The twin of (higher rated) wide receiver Tyrin, I'm not sure if the defensive portion of the Brothers Stone-Davis is a safety or corner. I wouldn't mind seeing him play safety. And let's face it, Earnest Thomas (letdown) and Zane Petty (overachiever) could use some competition back there.

As it sometimes happens with many of those 7-footers in the League, let's hope this physical specimen pans out.

Long-term investment: Tre Watson & Austin Roberts: I like the addition of these two prospects, but I'm realistic with my outlook. Neither is going to provide immediate help. Both are entering a crowded and still young inside linebacker battle and both have their limitations. Watson needs to get bigger and stronger and Roberts is recovering from an ACL injury.

That's OK. There's time for these guys to get in the system, grow and progress and get ready to make contributions down the line. If I had to pick between the two for who is going to grow into the better player, I'd take Watson. But Roberts was a tackling machine before the injury and is the type of kid that I wouldn't bet against. He's a classic chip-on-the-shoulder type that could surprise by the time his career is up.

Straight up: Julian Hylton. Let's play a game called straight up. No rambling, no metaphors, just real, straight talk -- I love Julian Hylton's game. I think he's one of the most athletic members of the Illini class. I don't think he can play corner in the Big Ten. I think he needs to play offense. Maybe safety. But I would rather see him with the ball in his hands. That is all.

Sleeper alert: Henry McGrew. You tired of the two star players? I know you are! You done listening to people talk about how Illinois found a kid that nobody knew about? I feel ya! Completely over the diamond in the rough spin cycle? I get it!

But… But… Buuuuut… I think McGrew just might be the underground rock band that ultimately makes it big and cashes in major. I hear a lot of whispers… and given the usual rating of Illinois recruits, I'm used to hearing positive whispers about questionable subjects. In this case though, I'm buying the word on the street. Buy stock in McGrew. Thank me later. He just might McGrow into a real player... C'mon, you knew I was gonna take that route!

Wait and see: Tito Odenigbo. You've got to show me, kid.


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