I’m going to be positive about Illinois football for a minute. If that bothers you, just exit this page or skip down a bit. I get it. Illinois athletics is ridiculously frustrating for the fan base right now. Interim athletic director Paul Kowalczyk hit it on the head when he said giving the football coach a two-year deal -- a contract I highly doubt he wanted to give, but he has bosses -- is “not ideal.” The circumstances -- no leadership to make a long-term decision and promoting a coach who was fired at Western Michigan -- stink. But those circumstances are reality.
Given that reality, the revamped Illinois football staff did an admirable job in putting together a typically-ranked Illinois football recruiting class.
2016: 60th nationally, 12th (of 14) Big Ten, 2.62 avg stars
2015: 34th nationally, 6th Big Ten, 2.88 avg stars
2014: 71st nationally, 12th (of 12) Big Ten, 2.61 avg stars
2013: 41st nationally, 5th Big Ten, 2.76 avg stars
2012: 68th nationally, 11th Big Ten, 2.67 avg stars
2011: 40th nationally, 8th Big Ten, 2.70 avg stars
2010: 57th nationally, 8th (of 11) Big Ten, 2.45 avg stars
And those rankings of course aren’t perfect. The 2010 and 2011 classes -- Zook’s last -- both turned out to be pretty poor, while 2014 had some gems (Mikey Dudek, Geronimo Allison and Jihad Ward).
Yes, for Illinois to improve from a bottom-rung Illinois team, it must do better. But it could’ve -- and probably should’ve done -- much worse. The Illini found needed depth at tight end and the offensive line with power-five caliber prospects. In the final weak, they added defensive players who were once committed to Michigan, Miami and Rutgers. They got bigger, stronger and longer, but they need more speed.
Given the administration’s punting on the football program, this should’ve been a punt of a recruiting class. Yes, the staff -- Bill Cubit made some pretty impressive hires given that the new assistants are basically only guaranteed one year -- reached on some prospects. But they added some intriguing prospects who should turn into quality players for the future -- no matter who’s coaching them. But after what the staff accomplished in such a short time period while facing such a mountain of a challenge, the staff became a bit more intriguing. It'll be interesting to see what they can accomplish with a full year of recruiting the 2017 class, and most importantly, what they can accomplish on the field.
What’s more impressive is that the Illini staff did most of their work in just three weeks. Cubit said the staff “reset” its board during the monthlong dead period from mid-December to mid-January. Only six prospects who committed under coach Tim Beckman signed with the Illini on Wednesday. Fourteen of the 23 who signed committed in the past three weeks, seven in the previous four days -- including some of the best prospects, De’le Harding, Izon Pulley and Eddy Fish.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the staff wasn’t nervous. About a week and a half before Signing Day, the Illini had painful decommitments from long-time commits Antonio Shelton and Tim Walton. To make matters worse, starting linebacker T.J. Neal shocked the team by deciding to transfer for his fifth season. Yeah, the staff was a bit worried.
“You’re never comfortable in this,” Illini recruiting coordinator Ryan Cubit said. “You really aren’t. Up until (Signing Day) morning, you’re not. You constantly worry. You worry about the guys you’ve had committed for a year.”
Smelling blood in the water, other programs pursued Illini commits all the way until Signing Day. Other teams called receiver Dominic Thieman, who committed to the Illini in June and signed on Wednesday, in the weeks leading up to Signing Day. To be fair, the Illini were after other programs’ recruits too.
“You get worried all the time,” Ryan Cubit said. “You feel good about a list and then three guys are gone. Boom. At the drop of the hat, guys are gone. Then you sit there and say, ‘Well, who else do we got.’ Then one guy steps up and picks up the slack."
New defensive backs coach Paul Williams, formerly of the Miami staff, helped Illinois reel in Pulley, a former Miami commit. New tight ends coach Jeff Hecklinski, who now assumes recruiting coordinator duties, helped Illinois reel in Harding, a former commit at Michigan, where Hecklinski coached from 2010-2013.
“If we didn’t have the guys we had to come in and pick up the slack and get the guys we got, then I think we would have been in a lot worse shape,” Ryan Cubit said. “But because of what we got and who we got in place, all the pieces came together and we feel good about it.”
Said Bill Cubit: “You sit there and go, ‘Just keep working. Good things are going to happen.’ You lose a guy and all of a sudden (you’re feeling down). Recruiting you’re (up and down) all day long. You can’t stay down there. You lose a guy, you go, ‘OK, who’s next? Who’s the next guy?’ There’s a lot of ifs, ands and buts. ‘If this guy comes, what do we do? If this guy doesn’t come, how will we take our roster and combine it with recruiting?’ That’s what we did. I think all the scenarios that happen. That’s my job as a head coach. It was so well-organized by our people. If I lost a guy, I knew exactly who I was going to.”
Publicly, the staff is selling that the impact of a two-year deal is overblown. “Every coach is on a short-tearm deal,” is a common Bill Cubit refrain. But the staff isn’t naive. They know the two-year deal could be perceived as a deal-breaker for recruit, so Cubit addressed it quickly with prospects and their parents.
“I brought it up,” Bill Cubit said. “Last year when I was the interim, no one thought I’d be standing here (now). I outlasted 20 (FBS head coaches). I’ll outlast 20 of them next year. I’ll be here. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a great staff, great kids. And I think they say, ‘You know, what? That guy’s honest. He ain’t giving me a bunch of fluff.’ Now some kids don’t buy that because they want the fluff. Well, that kid isn’t good for Illinois anyway. We tell it the way it is.”
What is the staff most proud of? That the two-year deal didn’t kill the class.
“I think just what we’ve overcome,” Ryan Cubit said. “It’s flat-out right in front of your face. It’s right there. ‘You guys got a two-year deal. They got a six-year deal.’ That’s the first thing everybody asked us. We battled that. Our whole goal was to get these kids on campus. If we can get these kids on campus we have a great shot, we can sell our kids. Our kids go to a war for us and know what we’re all about.”
The staff’s biggest issue remains with in-state prospects. Ryan Cubit admitted it. The staff landed just four in-state prospects and none of the top-30. While they did well in other talent-rich states, like Florida, Texas and Maryland, Illinois must make a recruiting home in its home state. Illinois football, just like Illinois basketball, probably will never “own” the state, but it must be a big player. Right now, Illinois looks more like a pariah. Out-of-state prospects are more likely to be “out-of-state naive.” They haven’t heard as much about Cubit’s two-year deal, Beckman’s firing or Illinois’ history of struggle. It’s more difficult to overcome those questions from in-state prospects and parents. Combating those poor perceptions in state is No. 1 on the staff’s priority list for 2017. They hosted more than 100 in-state prospects for a Junior Day on Sunday and offered 25 in-state 2017 prospects in the past week.
“What happens there is that is such an early process, we’ve learned,” Ryan Cubit said. “Now, we have our full-time staff here so we can hit this running. You’ve got to hit that thing hard out of the gate. That’s what we’ve done so we can get relationships built in with all these kids. We’ve thrown out a bunch of offers today, over 25 offers today, just so we can get these kids to understand, ‘Hey, you’re the No. 1 over everybody else we’re going to recruit this year. we want you. We want to keep you from Chicago and the state of Illinois here.' That’s our goal. That’s our No. 1 thing that we’re setting out to do, that we’ve learned from this past year of what it takes to recruit the state of Illinois. We’ve built a lot of relationships with the coaches in the state. We’re just going to keep building those relationships as best we can.”
In January, Bill Cubit spent time visiting dozens of Chicago-area high schools to sell his program. He also added coaches with Illinois ties: Hecklinski, a Palatine native, and Tim McGarigle, a Chicago native, Northwestern grad and Division I career tackles leader.
“Those two guys alone are big-time Chicago recruiters,” Ryan Cubit said. “That’s what they’re going to bring to the table aside from the fact that they’re great football coaches and great teachers. They’re Chicago guys through and through. They were born and raised there. They played high school ball there and they’ve recruited there their entire coach careers. They’ve got a lot of ties in the city of Chicago. A lot of coaches who really trust therm. They’re going to go into that thing and dominate that city the way they should. That’s why they’re here.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Phair wants a different kind of defender than Beckman and Tim Banks. And Cubit obliged by readjusting the type of defender they’re recruiting. Phair (watch the video above) wants longer-armed linebackers so they have a bigger tackling radius. He wants taller and longer defensive backs who can win jump balls with tall receivers, something last year’s cornerbacks struggled to do. He wants more physical cornerbacks who can play press-man coverage and cover-2. He wants quicker-twitch defensive linemen who can get up field and disrupt (Illinois still needs way more of those).
The Illini still have three remaining spots in the Class of 2016. The Signing Period opened on Wednesday. It doesn’t end until April 1. The Illini still want another defensive lineman, an offensive lineman and a receiver. They’ll scour the leftover high-school prospects (possibly for late qualifiers), junior college prospects and (maybe most likely) fifth-year transfers.