Coming from the guy that's been harder on Illinois recruiting than anybody else, props, props, props to the staff for the start to the 2015 class.
A four-star offensive tackle and a four-star running back (Gabe Megginson and Dre Brown) have already given a pledge — that's the same amount of four stars Tim Beckman signed in his first three classes combined (Jihad Ward & Aaron Bailey).
And yes, give me the four stars. I'm all about a success story, a diamond in the rough the staff finds that goes from under-the-radar to big-time player. But I'd rather go with the percentages and bring in those higher-ranked guys. Three-star players are going to comprise the bulk of most classes, but recruits with four or five stars have a better chance of panning out, generate more excitement for the fans and make other highly regarded recruits take notice.
So, again, props to the staff on landing two big-time names this early in the game. Why does it seem like the Illini staff is turning the corner, creating the buzz and putting something stronger-than-solid together?
Here's what I see…
A) The state of Illinois is loaded with offensive talent in the upcoming class. Megginson, Brown and fellow commit Jimmy Fitzgerald are joined by tight end David Edwards, receivers Miles Boykin, Flynn Nagel and Leon Thornton and lineman Quinn Oseland at the head of the list of top targets. Has it been perfect? Of course not. Quarterback Jack Beneventi (Iowa) and lineman Cody Conway (Syracuse) are currently aligned with other schools. But this class is already light years ahead of what happened in the last in-state cycle. The Illini landed but one prospect in the 2014 state of Illinois Top 20, three in the Top 40. That's simply not good enough, and it's something the staff clearly set out to improve...
B) Time is the one thing Beckman couldn't manufacture or change. And it takes time to build relationships and demonstrate what a program is going to be about. Guys like Brown and Megginson have been speaking to Beckman since they were freshmen in 2012. There may not have been enough wins on the field in the fall, but Beckman, with his staff completely intact for 14 straight months, has been able to establish connections, cultivate relationships and reap the rewards.
C) On the establishing and developing relationships front, this offensive staff was built to shine. Coordinator Bill Cubit is full of charisma, one of those football guys that's been around a long time but doesn't have that old school feel. Cubit, put simply, is the coolest guy in the room. The current players love him, the media seeks him and recruits have always given positive reviews.
Joining Cubit is a collection of young coaches, full of energy and good chemistry. Tight ends/running backs/recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh is young and driven and has come up with numerous cutting edge ideas to keep things interesting.
Side tangent — I grew up in Georgia. I went to Georgia. I then covered Georgia for four years. Georgia kind of sells itself. That doesn't mean the coaches at Georgia can kick back and watch as the kids roll in (because Alabama, Florida, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, etc. recruit the same kids), but there's a certain, hey, we're Georgia, we're here, we're awesome, let's go win, attitude those coaches can use to land kids. Illinois isn't there, wasn't there when Beckman got the gig. So what has Beckman and Golesh done? Satellite camps around the state, spring practices and scrimmages in Chicago and Springfield, movie nights in Memorial Stadium, speaking engagements for groups like Core 6, and a whole bunch of youth camps are but a few of the things the staff has done to engage "Illini Nation." Beckman spent time as a coach at Ohio State and Oklahoma State, where things like that didn't have to be done. At Illinois, it is necessary, so props to him for making the adjustment and manufacturing ways to become known around the state. End of tangent.
Anyway, Golesh constantly makes reference to #freaks on Twitter and the whole staff refers to the Class of 2015 as the Fighting Force, both nods to marketing in an attempt to make it cool to interact with the Illini.
Receivers coach Mike Bellamy relies on the hashtag Untouchables whenever talking about his position. You all know Bellamy, a former Illini standout who spent time in the NFL. He's a perfect fit, because he's young, energetic, has been where the recruits currently are and has perspective on the Illinois experience. Coaches can talk and talk and sell and sell, but it helps to have a guy who can genuinely tell parents what goes on down on Green Street or what a degree from Illinois actually when the time comes that football is no longer an option in life. Showing is always better than telling, and the Illini have plenty to show with a guy like Bellamy on staff.
A.J. Ricker rounds out the list, another young guy not that far removed from a successful college career and time in the league. Ricker played for Cubit — again, another example the staff can use if parents or prospective players want to talk about Cubit's offense, fit in the system, etc. All of these coaches are engaging and willing to do out-of-the-box things to make the Illini relevant again.
D) Cubit's offense works and is fun to play in. This is a pretty simple one — Are we going to score? Am I going to get the ball? Am I going to look good doing it? It's been only one season, but that was enough time for Cubit to show that, yes, it does work. And yeah, you'll get the ball. Steve Hull was a wideout. Josh Ferguson a tailback. Nathan Scheelhaase a quarterback. Matt LaCosse a tight end. Aaron Bailey a back-up quarterback. Simon Cvijanovic a tackle. Ted Karras a guard. All had good years in 2013. All are now selling points moving forward.
E) Wes Lunt transferring to Illinois helped legitimize Beckman's program and recruiting ability. You've got to have a quarterback that can be the face of the franchise, and Lunt, an in-state, successful signal caller, easily fits into that role.
F) Illinois provides an opportunity. There's plenty for the staff to use as leverage here. Is Illinois Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Penn State? No. Those schools have strengths and weaknesses of their own, but Illinois, as bad as the last two years have been, has plenty to sell kids on. There's playing time up for grabs across the board. There's the chance to turn it around. There's an exceptional education offered. The rebranding has been a blast of excitement.
In sum, there's plenty of reasons to come to Illinois, always has been. What the staff is doing is working to remove the reasons for not coming to Illinois, those things that made easy for kids to choose the Buckeyes, the Wolverines, the Irish, etc. instead. Repeating a little here, but the offense now works. The coordinator is a boss. The staff is young, energetic and ambitious. There's exciting players like Lunt and Ferguson to point to. Activity around the state has helped create an identity. The facilities are constantly being upgraded. The jerseys are cool. Some of these aspects are bigger than others, but even the smaller details being paid attention to are helping land big names and providing the chance to sign a complete class.
So… Illinois is off to a great start. Fitzgerald, Brown and Megginson represent hope, hope that the staff can recruit the type of players necessary to get the Illini back in contention for the Big Ten. Those guys are recruiting just as hard as the coaches (that may be a reach, but still), which is as helpful as anything else.
If a guy like Aaron Bailey commits and signs, of course it's a big deal. But he was one big name in a run of classes that didn't exactly have much in-state pop. Allegretti, Mike Dudek and Matt Domer were good gets in last year's class, but there were too many misses at the top for guys like me to get real excited. You land Brown, Megginson and Fitzgerald before May? And have big names like Boykin, Oseland, Edwards and Flynn making multiple visits to camp? Yeah, I'll jump on the feel-good bandwagon pretty quick if that's the case. And it is.
It's not nearly a finished product, but it's a damn good start. The ceiling is real, real high, and now the floor appears to be rising as well. Props to the staff for what has happened. And here's to getting amped about what still might.
Can the same thing occur for recruiting on the defensive side of the ball? That's a (long) conversation for another day (very soon).