Need Ya Right Now

Need, want and opportunity lined up for three defensive junior college prospects in the Illini signing class.

When I hear that a staff, basketball or football, is in pursuit of a junior college recruit, I always think of the Tom Petty line — ‘take me as I come, cause I can't stay long.'

That's not to say kids who enroll with two or three years to play after a stint elsewhere can't develop and get better.

But you guys know the premise… theoretically, JUCOs are supposed to be more ready than freshmen to fill an immediate need, with the downside being that they won't be around as long.

That's why Illinois took five in the 2014 signing class (and tried to take another before Tyree Stone-Davis didn't work out).

Where was the Illini weakest on the field last season? The defensive line. Joe Fotu, Jihad Ward and Carroll Phillips are suppose to help there. And where did graduation hit hardest? Wide receiver. Hence the additions of Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis, the twin brother of Tyree. I'll have a wideout story in the future, so let's focus on the defensive group. Here's the nuts and bolts.

Ward was the highest rated recruit in the class, the lone four-star of the bunch. At 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, he has three years to play two.

Fotu also has three years to play two seasons. He's 6-foot-3, 275 pounds and also played basketball and rugby in high school.

Phillips is the one with the most time, having three to play three. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, he brings a different physique and skill set than the other two. Perhaps he could be a LEO, Houston Bates-style player, manning both outside linebacker and defensive end.

So what exactly does Illinois have in these three players? Oftentimes it can be hard to tell. Successes like Cam Newton and Nick Marshall are the obvious examples of JUCO kids panning out. Those players started their careers at well known SEC institutions before having to take an alternative routes. They were more known commodities, didn't take anybody by surprise.

That's not always the case.

Ward comes with a high ranking, but not much is known about him. He played wide receiver in high school, too, and was last at a school called the Globe Institute. Know where that is? Still wondering? It's smack dab in the middle of New York City. Ward lived with a good number of his teammates and had to wake up early to trek many miles to get to workouts, film study sessions, practices and classes. Want to know how Coach Tim Beckman and defensive coordinator Tim Banks zero in and decide to offer a kid from the junior college ranks? It starts with stories like Ward's.

"Competitive nature," Banks said. "How competitive are they, and you ask them different questions to try to get a feel for that, you watch the film to try to see how well they're competing."

Clearly this is a process, unique compared to luring in high schoolers. The coaches recognize a distinct, dire need for help at a certain spot. But it's a two-way street in recruiting. A junior college prospect doesn't have as much time, so perhaps pitching, let's say, development isn't as important. Their clock is ticking faster than "regular" recruits.

"So plan is important to them," Banks said. "I don't know if (the angle) changes, but they have to recognize there's an opportunity for them here if you're good enough. We talk about the first year guys that we played last year, the second year guys, the success of some the junior college kids we did sign last year. We show them those things and ask them if they want to be a part of something that's still building. Most of those kids did."

Last year the staff brought in junior college recruits with mixed results. Receiver Martize Barr did good things early and safety Zane Petty earned a starting job later. Eric Finney played some after a injury in fall camp set him back. And Dallas Hinkhouse and Abe Cajuste didn't really get off the ground.

That speaks to the fact that, A) It can work and B) it doesn't always work.

"It's not going to be given to them," Banks said. "They have to earn it. We think (the newest trio) has the attributes to be able to do that."

There's definitely a different kind of head swirl involved. First you have to find a kid good enough at football. Then you have to make sure he can get into school. It didn't work out for Tyree Stone-Davis, who was expected to be a member of the class right up until first week of February. There was a need in the secondary that Tyree Stone-Davis appeared suited to fill. The staff, instead, had to turn to lesser known Texas high school recruit Chris James, who committed less than 24 hours before he signed.

It can be a frustrating process for the coaches.

"Our academic style or level is pretty good, so it has to be the right kid and right fit and has to have the academic background to survive here," Banks said. "That would probably be the only challenge that is put in front of us in that regard."

Is this the ideal way of building a program? Maybe or maybe not. Auburn and Tennessee took multiple JUCOs this year, both program with recently hired head coaches in charge. It's clearly the path for a guy like Beckman, tasked with lifting a program that had obvious holes on the roster when he inherited it.

Is it something that a coach will still be doing five, six years down the road? Probably not, at least not in bulk like the Illini. But for the time being, it's the best bet.

"As long as it fits the program and is up to our standards we're going to go out actively and extremely hard after those young men," Beckman said.

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