Moving on: Illini staff hits recruiting trail

Illini staff hits recruiting trail trying to sell future, immediate playing time

The Illinois football staff doesn't have a future guaranteed beyond the 2016 season, but they're now attempting to sell a future to recruits.

While details of Bill Cubit's two-year contract are not fully available yet -- the deal likely won't be approved by the University of Illinois board of trustees until January -- Cubit is expected to receive a fully guaranteed $1.2 million for 2016 and a smaller buyout for the 2017 season. But everyone, even Cubit, knows that the contract is basically a one-year deal.

Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk acknowledged on Saturday that the deal was put in place so the new athletic director, likely to be announced in the next two months, can make the next football hire. Cubit is a placeholder. And he knows it.

But his goal is to force the next athletic director to at least think about keeping him. To do so, Cubit needs to 1) win in 2016; and 2) land more talent.

Cubit and his staff -- those assistants who remain on the staff -- hit the recruiting trail to do the latter, which may help them do the former.

“You got to tell (recruiting prospects) right now where we’re at,” said Ryan Cubit, the Illini recruiting coordinator. “I think a lot of the recruits are happy since (the contract extension) happened. I’ve already gotten a bunch of messages from kids that we weren’t on but now are on. They see it, and now they want to visit. I think it’s big for us to have this in place now so we can move forward and get kids on campus.”

Illinois will sell what is has for the past four months: an opportunity to play in the Big Ten and an opportunity to play early. Illinois' current class of 17 commitments ranks 56th in the country and 12th among 14 Big Ten teams, ahead of just Indiana (80th) and Purdue (101st).

“I don’t know who is on a four- or five-year deal these days in college football coaching anyways,” Ryan Cubit said. “I think everyone is on a one-year deal contract. Anybody can buy anybody out at any time. That’s the way we’re looking at it. We know we have to win next year. I think every coach in the country knows they have to win next year, no matter how many years they have. We don’t have time to wait. We don’t have any time to soak things and wait for the future. We have to go now. We’re going to recruit that way. We’re swinging for the fences. We’re going to try to sign some of the best guys we can sign who can play for us next year because we know we have to fill some spots with some young kids.”

Positions to watch

  • Wide receiver: Without Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee, the Illini lacked speed to stretch the field. Hardee is gone after next season and Illinois needs another player who can take the top off the defense.
  • Offensive line: Illinois has gradually built up depth on the offensive line, but it's still not good enough. Illinois has three offenisve line commitments -- it lost one this week (Devon Robinson) -- but would like to add one or two more for depth. The staff will scour junior colleges to see if it can add a quality depth piece, but it doesn't want to reach on JUCO prospects like it has in the past.
  • Tight end: This was one of the weakest positions on the team last year and its lack of depth was exposed by injuries. Tight ends rarely make an immediate impact as freshmen, but Illinois will take the right prospect to add future depth.
  • Linebacker: The loss of Julian Jones due to legal issues made this position a priority. Jones was a future starter who added much-needed size and speed to the second level. The Illini need more playmakers at linebacker and will sell recruits on immediate opportunity.
  • Defensive back: Illinois loses three starters in the secondary, and the likely candidates to replace those starters don't garner a lot of enthusiasm. Illinois needs to get faster and longer in the secondary and can sell recruits on immediate playing time.
  • Defensive line: Illinois currently has five defensive line commitments, but you can never have too many defensive linemen. Especially when your four likely 2016 starters are all seniors, the case for Illinois.

Prospects to watch

  • Zach Farrar, WR: The 6-foot-3 Texas wideout has an impressive offer list, including Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Nebraska also is making a push, but Illinois is in his top-five and might be closer to the top of the list than some would assume due to a budding relationship and early playing time. Still, Illinois seemingly would have to beat out some closer, better programs.
  • Rontavius Groves, WR: The Illini have gradually improved their standing with the 5-foot-11 speedster from the same program as current Illini teammates Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Cameron Watkins. Illini assistant Nathan Scheelhaase visited Groves this weekend and he is expected to visit Champaign before Signing Day. Groves has a great list of offers and hometown Vanderbilt seems to have been near the top of his list for a while, but Illinois is right there.
  • Desmond Fitzpatrick, WR: The four-star, 6-foot-2 prospect decommitted from Louisville and reopened his recruitment. Other schools have come calling, including Arizona and Nebraska, but Fitzpatrick has a close relationship with Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy, giving the Illini a slight shot.
  • Brandon Benson, WR: The 6-foot Texas native and SMU commit is expected to visit soon and would be an early enrollee.
  • Jahmir Johnson, OL: Illinois recently offered the 6-foot-5, 273-pound Philadelphia product, giving him his first FBS offer.
  • Blake Hickey, DL: The Kansas State commit recently called Illinois to try to set up a visit. He likely would play defensive line at Illinois.
  • Kenneth Ruff, LB: The Virginia commit had Illinois high on his list before committing to the Cavaliers this fall. With a coaching change at UVA, the Illini are back in the picture for an athlete who had offers from South Carolina and Clemson.
  • Shemar Smith, LB: The 6-foot-2 Miami native received a visit from Scheelhaase this week. He'd give Illinois a needed speed boost.
  • Tymar Sutton, LB: Illinois has been near the top of the list for the McKeesport native, who goes to the same high school as current Illini starting LB T.J. Neal. Sutton called Illinois his leader during the fall and they are still on his short list.
  • Colby Reeder, LB: Syracuse appeared to be the leader before a coaching change. The 6-foot-3 Delaware prospect received an Illini visit this week from co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair and could be one to watch in the coming weeks.
  • Elias Reynolds, LB: Scheelhaase this week visited the Brooklyn native, who recently decommitted from Rutgers following its coaching change. Pitt and Wake Forest also have offered.
  • Bryce Banks, DB: The Illini have been chasing Banks for a while and are in his top-two, along with NC State. His decision may come down to whether he can enroll early. At NC State, it appears he'll have that chance. At Illinois, it appears he'd have to be a summer enrollee.
  • Stanley Green, DB: The East St. Louis product is teammates with current Illini commit Trevour Simms. The hard hitter would give the Illini some size and physicality in the secondary.
  • Frank Coppet, CB: The Cubits have great ties to St. Thomas Aquinas and are hoping to convince the 6-foot Vanderbilt commit to reconsider. Ryan Cubit visited Coppet, teammate of Illini commits WR Dominic Thieman (2016), K James McCourt (2016) and RB Mike Epstein (2017), on Wednesday.
  • Anthony Johnson, DB: The 6-foot-3 Euclid, Ohio, native appeared close to a decision after receiving an offer and visiting Illinois this fall. He may not be the Illini's top priority at the position, but he's worth watching.
  • Kentrail Moran, RB: The Illini's highest rated commit -- though many think that rating is a bit generous -- is looking around at other programs. Part of the issue with Illinois could be academics. Illinois is fairly deep at running back but losing a highly touted in-state commit like Moran (even to academic issues) would be a PR hit. The Illini are high on recent Florida RB commit Devin Singletary.

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