There are few programs better to build a pipeline to than St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The two-time national champion and the eight-time Florida state champion program produces almost a dozen Division I recruits per season, including current Ohio State star Joey Bosa and NFL stars Geno Atkins, Giovani Bernard and Michael Irvin.
Illinois has slowly built a connection to STA. Former punter Justin Duvernois and running back Dami Ayoola played for the Raiders, as did current STAR James Crawford.
Illinois coaches Bill Cubit and Ryan Cubit have opened up an even larger flow to Fort Lauderdale due in part to a close relationship with the Aquinas coaching staff, adding commitments from three St. Thomas Aquinas products over the last five months: Class of 2016 receiver Dominic Thieman in June, Class of 2017 running back Mike Epstein in August and, now, Class of 2016 kicker James McCourt on Sunday.
McCourt, ranked the No. 12 kicker in the country by Scout.com, is the third prospect to verbally commit to Illini interim head coach Bill Cubit, joining Florida DL Tre Johnson and Missouri DE Brandon Jones.
McCourt is the first kicker Illinois plans to sign to a scholarship since current punter Ryan Frain signed in 2012.
Scouting report on James McCourt
"This strong-legged senior is one of the very best in the south, and has a chance to flash his leg talent quite often with an offensive attack featuring near double-digit Division I prospects. McCourt's kicks are rarely a threat to get blocked with his ability to get consistent height on the football. It doesn't matter if it's from 15 yards out or from 40, McCourt does a good job of driving through and putting power behind each of his kicks. He has great leg strength, but he's also fairly accurate as well.
In seven games played, McCourt has connected on 7-of-9 field goals with a season-long of 49 yards. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Florida native has came through and made 100 percent of his extra points, but has also sent 90 percent of his kickoffs out of the end zone. Kickers are featured in some of the most crucial parts of a football game, and Illinois just got one of the best out of Florida in James McCourt."
– Corey Bender, Scout.com Florida Recruiting analyst
Class of 2016, so far
Illinois currently has 17 verbal commitments. The class -- which currently consists of one (1) four-star prospect and nine (9) three-star prospects -- ranks 53rd nationally in the Scout team rankings and 12th of 14 teams in the Big Ten. The Illini's average commit rating (2.69) ranks 13th among Big Ten teams, ahead of only Indiana.
- Quarterback (1): Eli Peters
- Running back (1): Kentrail Moran
- Wide receiver (1): Dominic Thieman
- Tight end (1): Griffin Palmer
- Offensive line (4): Jake Cerny, Kurt Gavin, Tre'Vour Simms, Devon Robinson
- Defensive line (5): Tre Johnson, Joshua Black, Antonio Shelton, Kenyon Jackson, Brandon Jones
- Linebacker (1): Tim Walton
- Defensive back (2): Drake Spears, Juwuane Parchman
- Kicker (1): James McCourt
The Illini currently have about 22 scholarship spots allotted for the Class of 2016, if including the three oversigns allowed by the Big Ten. That leaves the Illini with roughly five remaining scholarships to fill. The remaining focus is on three positions.
- Offensive line (2): The Illini still have two more scholarship spots slated for offensive linemen. They will definitely add one more, but the staff still want quality though. If Illinois doesn't get two quality linemen, it'll use this scholarship at another position, possibly linebacker or defensive line.
- Defensive back (2): The Illini already have two spots slated for in-state safeties, but they'd like to add another lanky cornerback or two to complete their secondary slate for 2016.
- Wide receiver (1): Illinois has added size in recent years with Malik Turner, Sam Mays and Dominic Thieman but they have their eyes set on adding a speedy burner who can stretch the field vertically and wreck havoc in the screen game.
Prospects to watch
- Rontavius Groves, WR Nashville (Tenn.) Pearl-Cohn: The Illini have established a good relationship at Pearl Cohn and Groves, the former teammate of current Illini Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Cameron Watkins, would fill the Illini's need for a speedy wideout.
- Jair Anderson, WR/DB Duluth (Ga.) Northview: The Illini would like to get a visit from the top Georgia athlete.
- Bryce Banks, DB Columbia (Mo.) Rock Ridge: The 6-foot-3 corner would add much needed size and physicality to the Illini secondary. He visited the Illini last month, and Illinois recently added another Columbia, Mo., native (Jones).
- Stanley Green, DB East St. Louis: The 6-foot-1, athletic in-state prospect recently added a scholarship offer from Illinois. Teammate Tre'Vour Simms is committed to Illinois.
- Anthony Johnson, DB Euclid (Ohio): The 6-foot-3 defensive back recently visited the Illini and recceived an offer. Kentucky and Cincinnnati are the Illini's top competition.
- Alaric Jackson, OT Detroit (Mich.) Renaissance: The 6-foot-7, 280-pound offensive tackle has some big offers -- including Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin -- but doesn't plan to make a decision for a while, which could benefit the Illini much like Ke'Shawn Vaughn's recruitment last season. Jackson didn't make it for a possible unofficial visit during the Wisconsin game but the Illini have a shot.
- Coy Cronk, OL Lafayette (Ind.) Central Catholic: The 6-foot-5, 270-pound offensive tackle -- who also played middle linebacker as a junior -- is a bit raw on the offensive line but he has the combination of frame and athleticism that projects well as a pass blocker. Cronk, whose grandfather and great-grandfather played at Illinois, also has power-five conference offers from Indiana and Vanderbilt.