Where They Rank:
Illinois is currently rated as having the 53rd overall recruiting class in the country and the class ranks 12th in the Big Ten. Those numbers aren't exactly flattering, but considering the fact that Illinois fired their head coach a week before the start of the season, it could be much worse.
The situation isn't ideal, but Indiana (80th in the nation) and Purdue (94th in the nation) are far behind the Illini in the class rankings.
The lone addition since Beckman's firing has been Brandon Jones, a defensive end from Columbia (Mo.) Hickman, at least until last week, when the Illini made some noise in landing massive Orlando (FL) First Academy OT/DL Tre Johnson. Can the Illini continue that momentum as they battle against the odds the rest of the year?
Here's a look at a few of their current commits and how they project in this class.
Top Offensive Prospect:
Kentrail Moran, the feature back for O'Fallon right here in the state of Illinois, is a workhorse. And despite some struggles this year with an almost entirely new (and very young) offensive line, he has still managed to put up solid numbers. Moran doesn't possess breakaway speed, but his vision and burst after his plant step make him dangerous between the tackles. He is a compact, physical runner who takes good care of the football and gets the extra yard or two upon contact. Moran has a few 200+ yard games this year, which speaks to his physical running ability. He may actually benefit from having a more crowded backfield in college due to the reduced wear and tear on his body from a reduced number of carries.
Top Defensive Prospect:
Tim Walton, a smashmouth linebacker from powerhouse Detroit prep program Cass Tech, is the quarterback of an aggressive Technician defense. Walton excels in downhill run defense situations, however he has shown this year an improved ability to go sideline to sideline and disrupt stretch plays outside of the tackles. He can situationally cover running backs and tight ends downfield, but is at his best when attacking the line of scrimmage in either run defense or pass rushing. A big body at 6'-3" tall and 230 pounds, Walton moves fairly well at his size and has range to eat a lot of space. His experience playing against some of the best competition in the Midwest could possibly have him ready to contribute early at Illinois.
Juwuane Parchman is the quintessential two-way player for his Rockford (IL) Auburn high school team. The starting #1 receiver and free safety flies around the field on both sides of the ball, and has made big plays for his team when it matters most (see video above). Parchman feels most comfortable right now on offense, making plays in space and stretching the defense. But his best days may be ahead of him on the defensive side of the ball. He shows good fluidity in his backpedal and flies to the ball pretty naturally. He has a tendency now and then to overrun run plays, but as he gets more experience and improves his assignment discipline, he could evolve into one of the Big Ten's best big-play defensive backs when it is all said and done.
Eli Peters doesn't play at one of the Sunshine State's top-tier football powers, nor was he a huge name early in the recruiting cycle, but he was one of Bill Cubit's hand-picked QB recruits, and has led his team to success this year. Peters has a very compact and quick release, which reduces the defensive backs' ability to break on the ball and give his receivers a better chance of making plays. One of the most underrated qualities of Peters' skill set, though, is his mobility. He can often escape the pocket to keep plays alive or run a bootleg, and his 4.7 speed makes him a threat to take off and run at any time to scramble for the first down.
Tre'Vour Simms plays for one of the most explosive offenses in the state of Illinois at East St. Louis. Unfortunately, much of the Flyers' season has been lost due to a teacher strike at the school. But in the few games the Flyers did play, they stuck to their motto of "All gas, no brakes." Simms is a nasty blocker at the tackle position. Off the cuff, he looks like a Big Ten lineman and appears to have lost some weight since this summer. He is strong, bends well at the knees, and finishes blocks with force. He carries a bit of a swagger to him, and that sort of confidence should drive him to become a better player at the college level earlier rather than later.
Kenyon Jackson may not be the biggest guy on the field, but there's a good chance he's one of the strongest. Everything about Jackson screams Steven Richardson (undersized sophomore defensive tackle at Minnesota and former Mount Carmel standout who played as a true freshman). Jackson stands just a hair above 6-feet tall, but at 290 pounds with exceptional lower body strength, he clogs the gaps in the middle of the trenches and could be a linebacker's best friend at the next level. He's still developing his pass rush abilities, but at this point in his career, he often commands double teams, allowing his fellow teammates to make plays around him.
He Could Contribute Early:
Michigan native Jake Cerny already exhibits great fundamental skills and technical ability at the offensive tackle position, though, if he does not end up at right tackle, will likely start on the interior. What we saw of him at this past summer's Nike regional camp in Chicago was promising, especially considering he took home the offensive line MVP award over the likes of Ben Bredeson and Michael Onwenu. Cerny is an excellent run blocker who has above average athleticism and would be one of the better linemen on the team at pull-blocking. Illinois has recruited some great offensive tackles in the past couple of classes, but the interior offensive line positions are more wide open, meaning Cerny could be playing frequently within a year or two of arriving on campus.
Could Take Time to Develop:
This year was just his first playing defensive line, but Machesney Park (IL) Harlem defensive end Josh Black has a lot of the same intangibles as current Illini Dawaune Smoot. The difference between the two is that Black likely won't be able to jump in quite as quickly as Smoot did. Black spent the past three seasons working as an offensive tackle for Harlem and just made the switch to defense this year. Mentally, he's made the transition very well, which speaks to Black's football IQ and aptitude for the game. But physically he has some growing to do to be the same type of impact player that Smoot has become. Black has improved his body significantly over the last year, but still needs to add a good amount of lower body strength to prepare himself for the college level. His recent shoulder injury won't help his cause, and could be another reason he won't be ready to contribute day one at Illinois. But his potential is very high, and after a likely redshirt year, he could be a darkhorse to jump in and be a key rotation guy in a defensive line that still lacks depth.
Looks The Part:
The one-time Miami (OH) commit and St. Louis native passes the eye test without a doubt. Palmer has a great frame and is built solid as a rock. He will need to add more weight to play at the Big Ten level and will likely have to improve on his blocking ability after being used as the primary receiving threat for DeSmet, but Palmer is a chiseled 6'-5" and 225 pounds. Physically, he looks like a prospect who could transition to defensive end if need be, but his future likely lies on offense with Tyler White graduating in the next couple years. Actually, in many ways, Palmer is reminiscent of White, who was an underrecruited physical specimen coming out of high school and developed into a solid tight end in college.
Kurt Gavin has all the tools to make a great Big Ten offensive tackle. He's built well, has a great tackle frame, has long arms, and has plus athleticism at the position. He may be a year or two of technical coaching away from turning into one of the best technical tackles around, provided that he can put all of the pieces together. He is sometimes inconsistent in his pass blocking and will need to become a little more physical at the point of attack in run blocking, but with the proper coaching, he can become a solid and well-rounded starter for Illinois in due time. The biggest challenge for him may be beating out 2015 recruits Adam Solomon and Gabe Megginson, but given how Illinois likes to rotate linemen, Gavin could easily find himself frequently in the mix on the line before too long.
Okay, maybe his commitment wasn't a huge surprise, but given the circumstances surrounding the program, the commitment of Orlando-native Tre Johnson was a little unexpected, or at least was unexpected a few weeks ago. Johnson is a legitimate 6'-7" and 285 pounds. A mountain of a man, he has played on both sides of the ball for First Academy. Johnson has all of the tools to be an excellent strongside defensive end, much in the mold of current Illini Jihad Ward, when all is said and done. He has a massive wingspan and is surprisingly athletic for his size. If Johnson is able to develop into a role as a space-eating defensive end, then his commitment will end up being one of the pleasant surprises of this class, and one of the signature recruits brought in by interim head coach Bill Cubit.
The Illini are still in pursuit of a number of key prospects in 2016. If this season proved anything, it proved that any team is a few injuries away from seeing their deepest position get stretched thin. That's a big reason why Nashville native Rontavius Groves, a high school teammate of Ke'Shawn Vaughm and Cameron Watkins, is a high priority recruit for Illinois. Likewise, Illinois remains involved with St. Louis WR Harry Ballard, who seemed to be close to a commitment earlier in the fall, but has taken a couple steps back and drawn out the process more than anticipated. Illinois still hopes to get Detroit WR Donnie Corley on campus for a visit. Corley is a big time playmaker, but Michigan and Michigan State, along with Tennessee continue to duel for his services.
Defensively, Illinois will be looking to bolster the defensive backfield with the impending graduations of senior corners V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence. Two targets at those spots are Columbia (MO) Rock Ridge DB Bryce Banks and Euclid (OH) DB Anthony Johnson. Both are tall, rangy corners who match up well with the bigger receivers of the Big Ten. The Illini have also recently extended a couple of offers at the JUCO level, one of which went to coveted CB prospect Devron Davis.
On the defensive line, Illinois still has their sights set on Denton (TX) Ryan DL Ken McLaurin, who is cut from the same general mold as Chunky Clements, a tweener who has the explosiveness to be a problem on the interior at the three technique position.
The kicking game for Illinois this year has been inconsistent, so Illinois has offered a pair of top kicking prospects in Braxton Pickard of Oklahoma and James McCourt of St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida. Pickard, who will officially visit the Illini for the homecoming game against Wisconsin, has been solid this year and has shown accuracy from distance in pressure situations. McCourt comes from the same program that produced former Illinois special teamer Justin DuVernois, who developed into a weapon for the Illini in the field position battle his junior and senior year.
If the Illini continue to win, this class could see a similar late surge to what they saw when closing out the 2015 class, however an uncertain future for the staff at this time has made recruiting somewhat of a challenge. Still, this staff has persevered and continued to have success on the recruiting trail, and will leave the roster in a better place regardless of future outcome.