Best prospect - offense
The Houston (Texas) Summer Creek tight end was good enough to play in the SEC (he was committed to Texas A&M and had an offer from Mizzou), the Big 12 (offer from Texas) and the Pac-12 (offers from Washington, Oregon, Cal and Colorado), but he chose to play at Illinois. Holcombe was the first of a flurry of commitments over the past three weeks and was one of the best gets. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound tight end is a match-up nightmare: too big for defensive backs and fast and athletic enough to run away from linebackers. He needs to gain about 20-25 pounds of strength to be an effective Big Ten blocker, but he has the frame to add the weight and the physicality to succeed. He could contribute early for the Illini at a position that has little proven depth.
Best prospect - defense
The Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy linebacker is this year's version of Ke'Shawn Vaughn: a player with big offers -- Harding, a former Michigan commit, also had offers from Tennessee and USC -- at a big position of need for the Illini, who's recruitment takes a turn Illinois' way in the closing days (Rutgers was the presumed leader most of the month). Like Vaughn -- who led the Illini with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman -- Harding, who has Big Ten-ready size and athleticism, should compete for a starting spot immediately and make a big contribution in 2016. Ultimately, he projects as the starting middle linebacker.
Biggest project - offense
The Groton (Ma.) Lawrence Academy offensive lineman gives the Illini improved size and strength on the front line. But he has only played football for two years and is pretty raw technique-wise. Fish shows some tenacity in the run game and has long arms that could allow him to be a good pass blocker. But he'll need a lot of work to turn into a Big Ten tackle. Yet, for offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, he's an intriguing mass of clay to mold.
Biggest project - defense
The Columbia (Mo.) Hickman defensive lineman was the first to commit to head coach Bill Cubit, giving his pledge just days after Tim Beckman's dismissal. Jones has ideal height (6-foot-5) and has good straight-line speed. But he is really raw technically and needs to add about 30-35 pounds of strength. His only other scholarship offer was from Southeast Missouri State.
Immediate impact - offense
Illinois offered the St. Thomas Aquinas product despite just 11 catches during his junior season. But after watching him during spring football, the Illini saw that Thieman's lack of production was due solely because of STA's depth of future Division I playmakers. Thieman proved worthy of the early offer. On a team that includes Miami recruits Sam Bruce and Michael Irvin II and five-star 2017 receiver Trevon Grimes, Thieman led STA with 508 receiving yards (34 receptions, five TDs) in 2015. He's big (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), physical against press coverage and solidly elusive in the open field. He adds more talent to an already good stable of Illini wide receivers.
Immediate impact - defense
Illinois lost two starters -- T.J. Neal (transfer) and Mason Monheim (graduation) -- and two backups (LaKeith Walls and B.J. Bello transferred), and the status of of one of their highest ceiling young linebackers (sophomore Julian Jones) is still uncertain due to an ongoing legal proceeding. These three linebackers won't arrive until June. As started above, Harding was a big get. Hansen (a former Iowa State commit) and Abercrombie (a former Western Kentucky commit) both are solid prospects. Abercrombie likely will play the weakside, Harding in the middle and Hansen at strongside. In an ideal situation, only one would be in the two-deep. But given the Illini's lack of returners at the position, all three could be in the two-deep.
Biggest sleeper - offense
Sure, McGriff is 5-foot-9 and only a two-star prospect. But the term "fit" is ... umm ... fitting here. The Illini have added many receivers with length. They have a need, a need for speed -- greasy, fast speed. (OK, I'm done with movie quotes). McGriff brings plenty of speed. He'll stretch the field and is a great fit in the slot. He can help Illinois in its screen game, their supplemental "run game," by make defenders miss in space. McGriff also will likely return kicks and punts for Illinois, a need following the graduation of V'Angelo Bentley.
Biggest sleeper - defense
Jones didn't have a plethora of big offers -- Air Force, Navy, Tennessee State, Texas State, Grambling and Eastern Kentucky -- but he has a big frame (6-foot-2) and already is "yoked up" at 185 pounds. Jones is a workout fiend, runs well and hits hard. He should contribute early on special teams. The Illini will start him out at cornerback, but he could eventually turn into a starting strong safety or a "joker" linebacker.
Biggest need filled
Tight end: While injuries to wide receivers (Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee) and running backs (Josh Ferguson, Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin) understandably received most of the attention last season, injuries to tight ends (Tyler White and Tim Clary) were costly too. Cubit's multi-dimensional offense needs tight ends to be, you know, multi-dimensional. But with White, the team's best blocking tight end, and Clary, the team's best H-Back, both out most of the season, the Illini's lack of depth at tight end was exposed. JUCO prospect Andrew Davis proved unready to block at the Big Ten level. Though he is a willing blocker and talented pass-catcher, he does not yet have the strength to be effective up front. JUCO prospect Ainslee Johnson didn't add much and the Illini redshirted Caleb Reams, who looks more like an H-Back than a tight end. So the Illini added three prospects in this class: Andrew Trainer (a former Virginia commit), Zarrian Holcombe (a former Texas A&M commit) and Griffin Palmer. Trainer has the pro-frame (6-foot-7, 235 pounds) to be a good run blocker and solid receiving threat. Holcombe is built more like a split-out wide receiver, but the staff thinks he can bulk up to 245 pounds and be the multi-dimensional threat they need at tight end. Palmer is more of a project and needs to add strength but appears to have the frame to do so. The trio adds present and future depth to a position that sorely needs it.
Most glaring hole
Defensive line: By glaring, I mean gaping, cavernous, monumental. The 2016 Illini defensive line should be the strength of the Illini defense. Four players with starting experience -- DE Dawuane Smoot, DT Chunky Clements, DT Rob Bain and DE Carroll Phillips -- return, as does promising freshman DT Jamal Milan, injury-prone junior DT Teko Powell, solidly built Tito Odenigbo and bulked-up, run-stuffing DE Henry McGrew. But all those starters graduate after next season and the Illini can't rely on a future for Powell, who has missed two straight seasons with foot injuries. That leaves the 2017 depth chart looking something like this (incoming freshmen in bold):
DE - Henry McGrew R-JR // Brandon Jones
DT - Jamal Milan R-SO // Kenyon Jackson
DT - Tito Odenigbo R-JR // Tymir Oliver
DE - Sean Adesanya R-JR // Izon Pulley
None of those current players have proven much, though Milan was a star of training camp last August, and defensive linemen usually need a few years to ready themselves for Big Ten play.
This issue dates back to the Beckman staff's struggles with defensive linemen. Class of 2013 signees Paul James, Bryce Douglas and Merrick Jackson never made an impact at Illinois. Meanwhile, the Illini elected for several short-term help JUCO defensive linemen (albeit, some productive ones, especially Jihad Ward and Phillips) over long-term help prep prospects in the classes of 2014 (when Odenigbo was the only prep DL prospect signed) and 2015 (when Milan was the only prep DL prospect signed).
The Illini added some bodies in the Class of 2016 but most are projects. But the Illini will count on all of them to make an impact in 2017.
Illinois was run over during Big Ten play in 2013 and 2014 due to similar recruiting issues, issues that unfortunately seem destined to return in 2017 and 2018.
Most painful decommitment
Tim Walton, LB: While DL Antonio Shelton (who flipped to and signed with Penn State) filled a position of need and Harding lessens the blow, Walton still seemed like a great fit for the Illini 4-3 defense. He's strong and aggressive. He could've played the middle but projected best as a strongside linebacker due to his strong blitzing skills. With T.J. Neal's defection, Walton had a legitimate chance at a starting spot from day One. Instead, he'll play for Syracuse head coach Dino Babers, someone many Illini fans had on their short list of coaching candidates following Beckman's dismissal.
Best reason for optimism
Offensive depth: The Illini added quality players at every position on offense, adding a quarterback, a running back, two receivers, three tight ends and four offensive linemen -- five, if you include grayshirt Doug Kramer.
While the 2017 offense will have questions -- the largest at quarterback -- it has quality depth. Let's take a look at the projected 2017 depth chart (2016 signees in bold)
QB - Chayce Crouch R-JR // Jimmy Fitzgerald R-SO // Jeff George Jr. R-SO // Eli Peters
RB - Ke'Shawn Vaughn JR // Dre Brown R-SO // Tre Nation // Reggie Corbin R-SO
WR - Mikey Dudek R-JR // M.J. McGriff
WR - Malik Turner SR // Dominic Thieman
WR - Desmond Cain JR // Sam Mays JR
TE - Caleb Reams R-SO // Zarrian Holcombe // Andrew Trainer // Griffin Palmer
OT - Christian DiLauro R-SR // Jake Cerny
OT - Adam Solomon R-SO // Eddy Fish // Jordan Fagan R-SR
OG - Gabe Megginson R-SO // Kurt Gavin
OG - Zach Heath R-SO // Darta Lee
C - Nick Allegretti R-JR // Zeke Martin R-SO // Doug Kramer
The Illini will have many options at the skill positons and improved size on the line.
Lack of top in-state talent. The Illini did not land one of the top-30 prospects in the state of Illinois, according to the Scout.com rankings. Now, they had the No. 8 prospect, O'Fallon RB Kentrail Moran, before academic issues kept him from signing (Moran is still looking for a place to land). This staff was behind the 8-ball in the Midwest, which runs out of resources sooner than Texas, Florida and other talent-rich areas, like Maryland. But for the Illini to take the next step as a program, they have to keep more (not all -- because that's an unreasonable expectation) of the Land of Lincoln's top prospects at home. The staff knows this. Cubit knows it. He added Illinois natives Jeff Hecklinski and Tim McGarigle to his staff to help in the Chicago suburbs. Former Illini Mike Bellamy and Nathan Scheelhaase can help sell the program as former Illini players. The Illini started off on the right foot in a stacked Class of 2017 by hosting more than a hundred prospects, including most of the top prospects for a strong in-state class, for a well-received Junior Day on Sunday. If Cubit's staff can get a few of the state's premier prospects to buy in to the "Our State, Our Team" mantra early -- and then win some games -- it might turn some doubters into believers.
Also, the 2017 defense: We covered the dangerous defensive line deficiencies already. But the back-seven also is worrisom. Illinois added a lot of bodies -- four linebackers and five defensive backs -- some that project well in the Big Ten, but the back seven is still a big question given the inexperience. The Illini lacked speed in the back seven since Beckman took over. Whether this class does solved that is still a big question. The Illini added some much-needed length in the secondary with Jones, Trenard Davis, Ahmari Hayes, Stanley Green and Harvey Clayton Jr. -- and possibly Juwuane Parchman, who will enroll at a junior college with plans to eventually come to Illinois. Most of the players add physicality to a defense that will run less quarters coverage and more man, cover-2 and cover-3 under Phair. But the group still isn't the quickest. Hitting on Harding calms some concerns at linebacker, but the Illini still need more speed and playmakers in the back seven.
Here's the projected 2017 defensive depth chart (2016 recruits in bold):
WLB - James Crawford R-SR // Christion Abercrombie // Ayo Shogbonyo
MLB - Tre Watson R-JR // De'le Harding // Austin Roberts R-JR
SLB - Julian Jones JR (???) // Jake Hansen
CB - Ahmari Hayes SR // Cameron Watkins R-SO // Evan Jones
CB - Jaylen Dunlap R-SR // Stanley Green // Frank Sumpter R-SO
S - Trenard Davis // Darwyn Kelly SR // Harvey Clayton Jr.
S - Pat Nelson R-SO // Julian Hylton SR // Juwuane Parchman (???)
Expect the defense to fall back. Hopefully not to the depths of 2013 and 2014.