Illinois is offically now Bill Cubit's program -- even if just for a year. Now that his official "interim" reign is over, Cubit started his longer interim run -- he will sign a two-year contract with Illinois, though the deal is really just a one-year bridge to allow the next athletic director to make the next hire -- with overturning almost half the Illini staff. Gone are Alex Golesh (Iowa State), Mike Ward (unemployed), Tom Brattan (unemployed) and Tim Banks (unemployed). In are A.J. Ricker (offensive line), Jeff Hecklinski (tight ends), Tim McGarigle (linebackers) and Paul Williams (secondary) -- and Nathan Scheelhaase officially has a "long-term" job as well after taking over the open staff position last season vacated by the dismissal of Tim Beckman. While the staff still has questions, Cubit appears to have made upgrades in some key areas -- impressive given his current lack of long-term job security.
This staff got younger. Hecklinski (41) is the only replacement older than his predecessor (Alex Golesh, 31). Ricker, 35, is 30 years younger than Brattan (65). McGarigle (32) is 21 years younger than Ward (53). Paul Williams is a few years younger than Tim Banks (44). Scheelhaase (25) is 25 years younger than Beckman (50).
Cubit looks at the Illinois roster and thinks a Big Ten roster shouldn't have so many holes. So this staff was built to fix that issue. “That’s a big thing of mine in putting together this staff," Cubit said last week. "We need recruiters to go out there and upgrade the talent here.” Entering next season, the Illini have big holes at linebacker, cornerback, safety and tight end. The defensive line becomes a gaping chasm in 2017. With likely just one year at the helm, the staff really has just until signing day (Feb. 5) -- just a little more than amonth away -- to fill those holes. The challenge is huge, but it's one they all accepted. “It’s a little challenging," Cubit said of recruiting. "During the year, we were getting hammered because (people were saying), ‘You’re not going to be here.’ Well, I outlasted a lot of those guys. Well, I’m going to outlast a lot more guys. That’s the way I feel. If anybody’s kidding yourself about these five-year deals, you’re kidding yourself. You don’t get five years anymore in this college football game. You get a short time and you better go out and produce. We understand that. ...We’re all on hotseats.”
Did the staff upgrade from an X's and O's standpoint? That's difficult to say. We don't know how this staff will interact as a whole. Phair will run a more aggressive defense. Williams' secondary helped Miami finish with top-50 defensive passer efficiency rankings the past two seasons and finish 26th in interception percentage last season. McGarigle, who holds the NCAA record for career tackles and also played in the NFL, obviously knows how to play linebacker. Ricker's 2013 offensive line group was the Illini's best the previous four seasons. The one upside: the staff is now mostly Cubit-chosen guys. McGarigle, Williams and Ricker all have experience under Cubit. The staff certainly should be on the same page.
This staff will more evenly share the recruiting burden. The last few seasons the Illini relied a lot on a few recruiters, especially Mike Bellamy, Golesh, Bill Cubit and Al Seamonson -- and Ryan Cubit and Mike Phair starting last season. Hecklinski is a proven Big Ten recruiter following four seasons at Michigan under Brady Hoke. Ricker recruited well in his one year at Illinois, highlighted by landing Gabe Megginson. Williams was instrumental in landing a few four-star talents at Miami. McGarigle has in-state ties. Scheelhaase is unproven but is a charming leader, and after four years as the Illini starting quarterback, he is a natural salesman for Illinois football.
The Illini will focus on a few areas. To his credit, Beckman attempted to establish better relationships in the state. He just didn't win enough. Otherwise, his staff recruited mostly in the Midwest, especially Ohio. In recent seasons, Golesh and Bellamy stepped up efforts in Texas. Cubit will try to reinvigorate efforts in the the homestate with Hecklinski and McGarigle, who both have strong ties in the Chicagoland area (both are Chicagoland natives). Scheelhaase also should help in the state given that he is a well-known and well-respected name from his Illini playing days. Ricker, a Texas native, will strengthen efforts in the Lonestar State, which is overflowing with talent. The Cubits have strong ties in Florida, another state saturated in talent, and are inching further into Missouri, with Scheelhaase (a Kansas City native) lending a hand there too. While Williams spent most of his time recruiting Florida -- that doesn't hurt -- he also will focus on the East Coast, especially Philadelphia (Bill Cubit's hometown) and New Jersey. For the 2016 class, most of the Midwest has been picked over (outside of Gatorade Player of the Year Sam Brodner). Most of the Illini's efforts will focus on Florida, Texas, Missouri and the East Coast. In tough times, it's often easier to sell to out-of-state prospects, who don't hear as much of the regional negativity.
The recruiting dead period continues through Jan. 13. The Illini staff will then hit the road and have a few big host weekends in a final, frantic push to land some early difference-makers. Here is my top-10 wish list of gettable targets.
- Colby Reeder, LB
- Darius Anderson, RB
- Sam Brodner, RB
- Zach Farrar, WR
- Isaiah Simmons, DB
- Tre'Vour Simms, OL (If it's Simms' choice, I expect him to pick Illinois)
- Grayson Stover, OL
- Elias Reynolds, LB
- Mackenzie Nworah, OL
- Dylan Soehner, TE
Cubit knows most assume his Illini coaching timeline ends in 11 months. The administration gave Cubit the short-term job because he probably won't embarrass the university before the next athletic director makes the real decision on the future of Illini football. Unlike Beckman, Cubit evokes and mostly inspires confidence when he speaks. While he lost six of seven to end last season, Illinois remained competitive. They'll likely remain competitive next season. Cubit's not packing it in and preparing for his eventual retirement to Florida (though the paycheck will help that fund). This staff shakeup is proof that he's attacking the opportunity -- a challenging one, but one he and all his assistants all signed up for. “I got a fresh start. If anybody doesn’t know, I’m invigorated. We’re going to put all the effort into making this thing work. We need all the support we can to build it from the ground floor and get it up there.”