IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner is breaking down each Illini football position group, what they're looking to add at each position in the Class of 2017 and their top targets.
Now, let's look at tight ends and superbacks.
What Illini have on roster
This position may have hindered Illinois more than any other last season. Injuries to starting tight end Tyler White (ACL tear) and H-Back Tim Clary robbed Illinois of its redzone offense. With too-thin junior college transfer Andrew Davis and inexperienced H-Backs on the depthchart, the Illini were ineffective in their goal-line packages and too often forced to use three- and four-wideout packages inside the opponents' 25. Unsurprisingly, the Illini finished dead last in the Big Ten in redzone offense (72.5 percent scoring rate), about nine percent lower than the second-to-last-place team (Maryland) in the category.
White returns, but health will remain a concern (especially given the recent history of Illini with ACL tears). He missed most of the spring. But if he does return to full health, he gives Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee the in-line blocker he wants in his pro-style, power-run scheme. White isn't the most athletic and has shown suspect hands in the past. But he had five catches for 46 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games last season.
Don't give up on junior college transfer Andrew Davis quite yet. While he struggled in his adaptation to the Big Ten -- mostly due to a lack of strength -- he still has the receiving skills to make an impact for the Illini. He received a bunch of reps this spring and shined in the open scrimmage, especially catching seam routes. He's a willing blocker, but he's struggled to get over 235 pounds. Five or ten additional pounds would help.
Redshirt freshman Caleb Reams has the potential to fill the versatile role of "superback" in MCGee's offense. He's a bit limited due to his height (6-foot-2), but he's athletic and pretty sure-handed. He needs to add more lean strength and become a more polished blocker, but he has the chance to fill the H-back type role as a lead-blocking, flat-catching, mismatch-creating "superback."
"I termed it superback when I was at Northwestern because you have to be able to run routes and be a matchup problem," McGee said. "You also got to be able to block at the point of attack on the ball. You also got to be a fullback sometimes and block linebackers and run out of the backfield. They do a lot of things.”
The previous staff beefed up the position this winter by adding three incoming freshmen who will boost the Illini's depth now and in the future.
Virginia native Andrew Trainer has a massive frame, like White, and with a few years in the weight room has the potential to be a plus in-line blocker and redzone threat. Due to that huge fame, he's not that fast but he has good hands and is a good route runner. Hopefully, Illinois can redshirt Trainer and then he can fill White's shoes in 2017.
Texas native Zarrian Holcombe may be the most talented incoming offensive recruit for the Illini. He adds a lot of versatility because of his frame and pass-catching ability. Once he adds some strength (he has the potential to bulk up to 240-245 pounds), Holcombe will be able to line up on the line of scrimmage and block defensive linemen/linebackers or split out and match up on smaller defensive backs. While ideally Illinois will redshirt all three freshmen, Holcombe could make an immediate impact as a receiver.
St. Louis product Griffin Palmer has a long frame but may need two years to bulk up enough to play tight end. He's a solid receiver but not nearly as developed in that regard as Holcombe. Palmer's a project, but he has the build and enough athleticism to eventually make an impact.
What Illini want in 2017
With White, Davis and Ainslie Johnson each playing his final season of eligibility, Illinois will look to add at least one and likely two tight ends in the Class of 2017. One will certainly be an in-line tight end.
The Illini haven't yet seemed to focus on pure "superback" types -- think former Northwestern superback Dan Vitale or former Illini fullback Jay Prosch -- bowling ball types who can clear running lanes, power into the end zone and provide short to intermediate threats in the passing game.
What's McGee want out of his tight ends and superbacks?
“They got to be multiple," McGee said. "They got to be able to block and run routes and play fullback. It’s a multiple position."
It's a good year to need a tight end. The state of Illinois features almost a handful of power-five prospects at a usually-thin position, but two of the best are off the board: Jake Marwede to Duke and Cole Kmet to Notre Dame. The Illini are recruiting two of the others.
Lemont tight end Logan Christopherson visited Illinois on April 9, and the Illini really, really like him.
“My first visit down there was with the first staff and then I went back down there to see one of their practices," Christopherson told Scout.com. "It was a good visit to see a practice because I got to know Coach Lovie Smith a little more and Coach (Bob) Ligashesky. I thought it went well down there too.”
He sports offers from four power-five programs: Illinois, Iowa State, Missouri and Syracuse. It's still early in the process for him, as he told Scout.com's Allen Trieu, and plans to visit several campuses this summer, including Iowa and Michigan. He recently visited Missouri and told BlackandGoldIllustrated's Nate Latsch: “I would say Illinois is up there too as well as Iowa State and Western Michigan,” Christopherson said. “But I was very impressed after this weekend visiting Mizzou.”
A member of the IlliniInquirer.com 2017 All-Name Team, Griffin Hammer a good athlete and receiver but needs to add weight and strength. The previous Illini staff was the first power-five program to offer Hammer, who has several MAC offers. But like St. Charles North offensive line teammate Isaac Hawn, Illinois may want to see him camp this summer. Other major programs are showing interest too, including Iowa, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and others.
The new Illini staff sees a big opportunity in recruiting Indiana. Purdue is in the dumps (to put it nicely), and even after a bowl appearance, Indiana is still iffy -- especially recruiting against Lovie Smith, you'd think. Rafdal would be a heck of a start. He has many suitors, including offers from Iowa State, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska and Louisville, and Illinois has a lot of catching up to do for a prospect who would like to make a summer decision.