RANTOUL, Ill. - The Illinois football staff in February signed its highest-ranked recruiting class of the Tim Beckman era, slating sixth among 14 Big Ten teams and 34th nationally, according to the Scout.com team rankings.
Upon first-hand viewing at training camp here, it certainly looks like the most physically impressive of the first four recruiting classes since Beckman's first year as head coach in 2012.
“We’ve gotten some really good football players that we think can be great,” Beckman said.
The Illini played just two true freshmen last season: receivers Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner. The Illini may have the depth to redshirt most of its high school prospects again this season. But several have shown already at Camp Rantoul that they have the talent to make quick contributions at Illinois.
“There’s just some impact guys that jump out at you,” said Illinois assistant Alex Golesh, recruiting coordinator for the Illini’s first four classes under Beckman. “It’s probably the most intriguing (class we've signed at Illinois) just because there’s some guys that I think we just did a good job evaluating as a staff. It’s probably the most immediate impact guys outside of a Mikey Dudek.”
Here are a few possible immediate impact Illini freshmen.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, running back
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Nashville native may wear No. 5, but he doesn’t have very many other similarities with the previous inhabitant of that jersey number. Donovonn Young was bigger and stronger as a freshman. But Vaughn is quicker, faster and more dynamic. The four-star prospect looks worthy of the hype, and the staff thinks that Vaughn and Dre Brown (who suffered a torn ACL during spring practice) will be a dynamic duo in future seasons -- the silver lining of Brown’s injury is that he and Vaughn will be in separate classes as Brown redshirts the 2015 season. Vaughn, recruited primarily by Golesh, has shown great vision in finding a hole, cutting quickly and bursting up field. He might not have the speed to run away from every defender, but he does have the burst to get chunks of yardage at a time. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said that Vaughn even is further ahead in pass blocking than most freshmen. He looks capable of 10-15 touches a game -- which would free dynamic senior Josh Ferguson to line up more on the perimeter and in the slot. No freshmen will have more opportunities in 2015 than Vaughn. He must prove it, but Illinois feels it may even have a running back with the potential to leave school with eligibility remaining.
Jamal Milan, defensive tackle
Illinois has enough depth at defensive tackle that it doesn’t need to play a freshman. But Milan, a 6-foot-2, 310-pound Chicago native, has shown enough at camp to make his way into the two-deep if an injury occurs. Milan has a big base and thick thighs but a burst and quickness similar to teammate Jarrod Clements, a junior starter. Milan has dominated the Illinois third-string offensive linemen and is starting to get reps with the second string when Tito Odenigbo slides from tackle to end. A possible redshirt candidate, Milan looks the part of much-needed future starter for the Illini on the interior.
Sam Mays, wide receiver
The days of an overwhelmingly undersized receiving corps is over at Illinois. And Sam Mays -- a 6-foot-3, 200-pound Texas native -- is the prototype that Illinois is trying to accumulate. Wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy landed both Mays and receiver A.D. Miller out of Texas and said that he feels like he held on to the right one (Miller de-committed and signed with Oklahoma). Mays has many physical similarities to senior Geronimo Allison: tall, smooth and athletic. While he needs refinement, Mays already appears to have cracked the two-deep.
Desmond Cain, wide receiver
Illinois recruited Cain, a 5-foot-11, 185 pound Florida native, as a defensive back. But Cain preferred to play on offense and Illinois had a need for receiver depth due to injuries to Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee. Cain may struggle in press coverage due to his size, but his good hands, quickness and straight-line speed makes him a great slot target. He’s currently repping with the twos, behind junior starter Dionte Taylor. Cain and Mays -- along with sophomores Dudek and Malik Turner -- give the Illini a bright future at receiver.
Gabe Megginson, offensive line
No previous Beckman Era offensive line recruit has looked better on arrival than Megginson, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound Jacksonville, Ill., native. Though, classmate Adam Solomon gives him a run for his money. Megginson -- who passed on offers from Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska, Missouri and Penn State, among others -- simply looks like what a Big Ten offensive line recruit is supposed to look like. He missed most of the first week of practice with knee inflammation but participated in each of Thursday’s two practices. Immediately noticeable were 1) his power 2) solid technique. Now, Illinois would love to redshirt Megginson, which is why it brought in JUCO prospects Zach Heath, Connor Brennan and Jordan Fagan. But Megginson might already be a better option than Brennan and Fagan. If Illinois suffers an injury or two, Megginson may play this season -- and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he held his own.