(Yeah, I asked myself that question. Seriously… Send me your questions HERE. I need something to talk about during this up and down offseason time).
I was strangely upbeat, positive and all-around awesome when recently talking about the offensive recruiting efforts. As weird as it was for me to be bullish, the Illini gave me no other option. The quick start to the 2015 class includes a potential game changer at running back in Dre Brown and a multi-year starter in the making with offensive lineman Gabe Megginson. The third pledge, Jimmy Fitzgerald, a local product that seems to be a great kid, has potential and the chance to develop as a quarterback under the Boss Bill Cubit.
So what's not to like?
Well, there are three commits. All are on offense. That means there's zero on defense, and that's the unit that needs the most help.
There are a few things working against the defense (that are currently going in the offense's favor). If I was asked to jot down a few of the state's best players just off the top of my head… OK, here I go: Miles Boykin, Dre Brown, David Edwards, Terry Beckner Jr., Gabe Megginson, Natereace Strong, Flynn Nagel, Leon Thronton, Jack Beneventi…
Yeah, I just named eight offensive players and one defender. Of course there are good defensive players, such as Bobby McMillen and Micah Dew-Treadway, but there seems to be three or four flashy names on offense for every one guy you can throw out on defense. That's just the way it is in this class.
So the pool isn't nearly as deep for Tim Banks as it is for Cubit.
Also working against the defense, and I have to say it — it hasn't been any good the last two years. Actually, I probably didn't have to say that. You guys lived it.
To put it simply, there's no success to sell and no recruits within ideal proximity to sell anything to anyway.
What can Banks do? Head out of state and light up the JUCO line.
It's not like there's not already a precedent here. Let's do the same exercise from above — name some of the most important defensive recruits of the Beckman Era… V'Angelo Bentley - Ohio, Mason Monheim - Ohio, Dawuane Smoot - Ohio, Jarrod Clements - Ohio, Caleb Day - Ohio, T.J. Neal - Pennsylvania, Mike Svetina - Ohio, Paul James - Florida, Teko Powell - Florida, Taylor Barton - Florida, James Crawford - Florida, Abe Cajuste - JUCO, Eric Finney - JUCO, Zane Petty - JUCO…
In the last recruiting cycle, Illinois came away with: Jihad Ward - JUCO, Carroll Phillips - JUCO, Joe Fotu - JUCO, Tre Watson - Florida, Henry McGrew - Kansas, Austin Roberts - Wisconsin and Tito Odenigbo - Ohio. Only defensive back prospect Julian Hylton represents the home state, and he's probably going to play running back for the Illini.
Thanks for sticking with me through that. But it was necessary to show you that Illinois doesn't necessarily have to rely on the nearest radius drawn around Champaign to secure defensive talent.
It just means there's a need for more jet fuel.
Alright, so, here we go. How can this work? We know that Illinois is not Alabama, Florida State or any other big dog amid the college landscape. Being good is something those schools can use to their advantage. Not being good is something Illinois can use, too.
Is that ideal? Of course not. I'd much rather be George Clooney walking into a speed dating session. But recruiting is virtually all about perception and when the perceptions aren't in your favor you turn them upside down.
No depth on defense means there's an easy route to early playing time. Having a bad defense last year means there's plenty of positions up for grabs. A lack of stars means there's a chance for early exposure. Illinois can say, hey, don't go somewhere else and get buried on the depth chart. Come along with us, we need you now, help us turn this around.
Ohio State might be able to give you a car (figuratively speaking of course), but it might sit in the garage for two or three years before you can drive it. Illinois can hand you the keys, fill it up with gas and fix it if you crash.
I think all that made sense.
Junior college players have only so much time to get to school, make a splash and prove themselves capable of playing in the pro ranks. You can't tell me recruits didn't notice Finney in line to start before his injury or Petty entering the lineup midway through the year and piling up tackles. And if those recruits don't know, the coaches are surely telling them. Monheim, Svetina, Mosely, Dunlap, Smoot, Clements… I could keep going. What do they all have in common? They played significant time as true freshmen.
Did that hurt overall performance? Sure. Would that appeal to a future recruits, a smoking gun that proves without a shadow of a doubt that the best players will play at Illinois regardless of class, age or anything else (even if it was because there was really nobody else to play)? You bet it would.
Look, is all this a stretch. Yeah, and why am I asking so many questions? I dunno. But as I discussed in the long-winded offensive portion of my thoughts, this isn't an ordinary job. Illinois isn't going sell itself. And normal recruiting tactics point blank won't get the job done (what I consider normal is, driving to the nearest part of the state or country with plenty of prospects available, saying, here's who we are, what we do, what we want to do, will you join us? Thanks, awesome, cool, let's get it.) It just won't.
What we're all wondering is, can it work? The answer will come during the 2014 football season. Beckman recruits pretty much dominate the two-deep, with only a few Zook holdovers like Earnest Thomas, Austin Teitsma, Eaton Spence and Ralph Cooper still on the roster.
Guys like Monheim and Bentley will be counted on to lead. Neal and Smoot are said to be breakout players both with high upside, while Mosely, Day and Dunlap should build off getting plenty of playing time last season as freshmen. Junior college transfers Ward, Phillips and Fotu must increase the pass rush ability, while guys like Powell, James and Clements could develop into useful players as well.
The out-of-state and JUCO strategy was pretty much the way the staff had to go, and it's the way this current defense was built. With what the staff was given in this current recruiting cycle, the plan couldn't change in this particular year.
If Beckman and Banks do turn the defense around and have a better showing this season, perhaps the recruiting will change as well. I'm sure kids around the state and in Chicago will take notice if the Illini return to a bowl behind an improved defensive effort to help out what figures to be a dynamic offensive-centered team.
I've been fairly consistent with this thought, so I'm not going to change now — recruiting has to get better before on-the-field results do. We've seen three years of out-of-state and JUCO defensive players brought in. This upcoming season is a make-or-break for Banks' and Beckman's version of the Illini defense experiment.