Is Recruiting The Root Cause of The Illini's Struggles?

Illinois suffered an embarrassing loss to Western Michigan on Saturday, a team many expected the Illini to defeat. But the manner in which they lost begs the question: How does this team's talent stack up compared to other programs?

A 34-10 loss to a MAC school (whether it's the favorite to win the MAC or not) raises a lot of questions for the Illini.  Maybe one of the biggest questions is whether or not this team really has the combination of talent and depth to be competitive this season into the near future.

Lovie Smith wasn't coy about the fact that he had concerns with depth when taking the job at Illinois.  And frankly, his concerns were 100% valid. 

Illinois does have some quality talent, but this roster top-to-bottom lacks quality depth at numerous positions.  And a lot of people I think forgot about that when making their projections for this season.  

But for those that forgot, Saturday's trip to the woodshed was a stark reminder of that deficiency, and the outlook for the rest of the season is not nearly as optimistic as some once thought.

Class of 2013

Class National Rank: 41st

Big Ten Rank: 4th

Top-Ranked Recruit:

http://www.scout.com/player/141618-aaron-bailey

2013, "A Class Built on Sinking Sand"

The 2013 Illinois class, due to a combination of heavy JUCO recruiting and other miscellaneous attrition, is a shell of its former self.  Perhaps the biggest loss from that class in hindsight is quarterback Aaron Bailey, a stellar dual-threat who was a square peg in a round hole in Cubit's offensive system.

But looking at the numbers, Only 13 of the 27 members of the 2013 Illinois recruiting class remain on the roster today.  Here's a look at who all they lost:

Junior College Signees:

1. Trevor Kanteman - Barely played, transferred to UNLV

2. Joe Fotu - Played and graduated

3. Dallas Hinkhouse - Barely played

4. Abens Cajuste - Had other good offers, never panned out

5. Eric Finney - Started at STAR, injured off and on

6. Zane Petty - Started at safety

7. Martize Barr - Started at WR

High School Recruits (lost through attrition):

1. Merrick Jackson - Did not qualify, went JUCO, now at Minnesota

2. Paul James - Faced a handful of off-field issues, dismissed, now at Auburn

3. Marchie Murdock - Played moderately, transferred to Iowa State

4. Miguel Hermosillo - Opted for MLB career

5. Bryce Douglas - Left due to medical reasons

6. Aaron Bailey - Transferred to UNI, where he now starts

7. Jesse Chadwell - Left due to medical reasons

FOURTEEN players.. I'll say that one more time.. FOURTEEN players who were at one point committed in the 2013 class aren't with the program anymore.  Two things about the numbers above stand out to me.  One, that's a high number of JUCO players.  At the time, it made sense to go that route to get players more equipped to contribute immediately.

But the issue was that the JUCO players weren't recruited with roster longevity in mind.  Rather, Illinois' recruitment of JUCO players was kind of like leasing a car versus buying the car in a sense.  And by that I mean that they had the car for a shorter period of time, and at the end of the day, had no real equity to show for it.

Even without considering the JUCO players, Illinois having 20 players from that class being redshirt juniors or true seniors this year would have been huge, especially number 6 on that high school list.

Now I'm not saying Aaron Bailey would have made all the difference, but it was clear that he and Cubit never saw eye to eye on his role at Illinois.  Bailey, a talented runner, struggled to throw the ball, which was the primary focus of Cubit's offense.  So Bailey always took a back seat to Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt.  

It is worth mentioning that players like Dawaune Smoot, Christian DiLauro, Austin Schmidt, and James Crawford, who all start and have had solid Illinois careers, came out of that class.  But the numbers alone are really damning to the 2013 class and its impact on the depth (or lack thereof) that Illinois is experiencing now.

Class of 2014

Class National Rank: 71st

Big Ten Rank: 14th

Top-Ranked Recruit:

http://www.scout.com/player/182186-jihad-ward

2014, "JUCO Show, Take 2"

There's no denying Jihad Ward turned out to be a great prospect for Illinois.  And he was likely Bill Cubit's biggest personal haul of his tenure in Champaign.  But otherwise, this class is similar to 2013 in a lot of ways without as much attrition at the high school level.

But the 2014 class ranked DEAD LAST in the Big Ten.  Yep, 14th of 14.  Behind Purdue, Behind a struggling Maryland.

Dead... Last...

Yes, 2014 was the class that produced Mike Dudek. We kind of had an idea he would play above his ranking, and several of the other high school recruits in the class are now contributors, but all in all, the 2014 class again didn't address the depth issues that Beckman often talked about.  The issue was identified, but never correctly addressed.

Here's a look at the JUCO prospects and attrition of the 2014 class:

Junior College Signees:

1. Raphael Barr - Late signee, barely played, transferred this past offseason

2. Jihad Ward - Second-round NFL draft pick

3. Carroll Phillips - Starting DE, Leading team in Sacks, TFL this year

4. Geronimo Allison - Starting WR for Illinois both of his seasons, now with the Packers.

5. Tyrin Stone-Davis - Rarely saw action at WR for Illinois, eventually left the program

6. Tyree Stone-Davis - Did not qualify, ended up at WMU, but rarely played.

High School Recruits (lost through attrition):

1. Matt Domer - Did not qualify, ended up at Bowling Green.

2. Peter Cvijanovic - I think you can figure this one out...

So, the good news is that Illinois lost less high school recruits from the 2014 class.  The bad news is that they were still relying on a large number of JUCO players in Beckman's third recruiting class.  All but one of those JUCO players listed above are gone now (Phillips had an additional year of eligibility coming out of Copiah-Lincoln JC).  And 2014's JUCO haul had far better careers than the 2013 group for the most part.

And maybe that was the problem.  Did Illinois get too reliant on the JUCO players by that point to really focus on developing the high school prospects?  It's definitely a consideration.

Also worth noting, 2014 was the first year where Cubit hand-picked his QB.  Cubit targeted and pursued Ohio-native Chayce Crouch, who had a successful high school career and was skilled as a runner.  But Crouch has had his share of issues throwing the football, and given how much Cubit liked to throw the ball, I and many others are still trying to figure that one out.

More alarming in that 2014 class, though, was the fact that Nick Allegretti is the only remaining offensive lineman from that class.  Given how much Illinois has struggled to run the ball this year, the lack of linemen in 2014 should have been a much greater concern than it was considered at the time.

Again running the numbers, only 11 of the 18 members of the 2014 class actually remain on the Illinois roster.  So if we're keeping a running total, that's 24 out of a possible 45 between 2013 and 2014.  Wait, is that bad?

Class of 2015

Class National Rank: 31st

Big Ten Rank: 6th

Top-Ranked Recruit:

http://www.scout.com/player/184515-ke-shawn-vaughn

2015, "We're still doing the JUCO thing, aren't we?"

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?  Well, I guess the JUCO thing wasn't broke.  In Tim Beckman's 4th class (3rd full class), Illinois was still raking the JUCO ranks hard to fill their classes.  In 2015, Illinois again signed seven junior college players out of a total of 25 total signees.  Realistically, Illinois should have weened off of the JUCO bottle by 2015, but there they are signing just as many as they ever had.

Here are the JUCO players signed in 2015 and their impacts so far:

Junior College Signees:

1. Sean Adesanya - Injured all of 2015, has not yet played in 2016.

2. Ainslie Johnson - Played very little in 2015, has split time at H-back in 2016.

3. Jordan Fagan - Spent time as a backup guard and seen considerable action due to injuries to starters

4. Connor Brennan - Played rarely, came in for an injured Austin Schmidt against WMU.

5. Henry Enyenihi - got some touches in 2015, but elected to transfer this past offseason.

6. Zachary Heath - Has battled a lingering shoulder injury and seen little action.

7. Andrew Davis - In the rotation at TE/WR, but has yet to live up to potential.

The 2015 class was just one year in the past, but even already some key attrition and/or delayed arrival has taken place among the high school targets as well.

Attrition of High School Recruits:

1. Trenard Davis - Did not qualify in 2015, enrolled in 2016.

2. Jimmy Fitzgerald - Left Illinois program during 2016 fall camp.

It's also worth noting that two running backs Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown spent all of 2015 injured, and Brown is out yet again this season.

But what's almost more troubling is the loss of quarterbacks in 2013 AND 2015 (and it didn't end there, but more on that later).

The redshirting of several of the 2015 recruits was both a blessing and a curse.  Guys like Jamal Milan, Cameron Watkins, Frank Sumpter, Justice Williams, Caleb Reams, Zeke Martin, Adam Solomon, Gabe Megginson, and Jimmy Fitzgerald all redshirted last year.  That's all well and good, but that also means that the first real game action most of the aforementioned guys saw was week 1 against a weak Murray State squad.  

And players like Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Desmond Cain, and Sam Mays played in 2015, while some others redshirted due to injury.

The point being that Illinois is severely lacking in experienced players from the 2013 through 2015 classes.  Quite a few starters come from those classes, but beyond that, many of the backups are either true or redshirt freshman, many of which haven't played an abundance of meaningful snaps in games.

Class of 2016

Class National Rank: 60th

Big Ten Rank: 12th

Top-Ranked Recruit:

http://www.scout.com/player/179502-dele-harding

2016, "It's not ideal, but it's not a dagger in the heart of the program"

You could also label 2016 the "interim" class.  The class was recruited by two head coaches, neither of which would ever coach a single down for any of its members.  The Illini class was pieced together amidst the uncertainty of Bill Cubit's controversial and baffling 2-year contract, and was comprised mostly of players without an abundance of other P5 offers.  

It's too early to talk about attrition from this class, though, right?

OH WAIT NO IT ISN'T...  Because before the season even started, Illinois saw it's third quarterback in four classes elect to leave the program as Eli Peters chose to head to Toledo instead of ever playing a down at Illinois.  But it's ok because Wes Lunt was going to lead Illinois to the promised land, right?

Regardless of what side of the fence you're on about Lunt (personally I think he's fallen short in a lot of regards, but his resources haven't been great either. For example, see the entire first half of this article), the cupboard at quarterback for Illinois is bare.  Beckman & Cubit essentially ran off the best dual-threat QB on the roster, and now the new staff is stuck with what's left, which isn't much.  On the defensive side, Izon Pulley, a one-time Miami commit, didn't qualify, and subsequently never made it to campus.

In general, the class did address some needs, but it addressed them a couple years too late.  Illinois signed 5 solid offensive linemen in Jake CernyKurt GavinDarta LeeEddy Fish, and Doug Kramer.  But Illinois needed those linemen to be redshirt sophomores by now, not true freshmen.  

If there's a silver lining, though, it's that Illinois finally signed just one JUCO player in CB Ahmari Hayes.  Maybe Illinois is finally hopping off the heavy JUCO train?  

To Compare.. 

So how does Illinois' class stack up against its opponents?  Western Michigan seems like a good place to start when comparing how Illinois' classes have stacked up in the big picture.

Class National Ranks By Year
Year Illinois Western Michigan
2013 41st 99th*
2014 71st 56th
2015 31st 59th
2016 60th 48th

*PJ Fleck Hired Dec. 17, 2012 after Cubit fired.

Numbers don't lie.  In 2 of the 3 full classes, Western Michigan out-recruited Illinois.  Almost more damning is how badly Illinois got out-recruited by Western Michigan in 2016 within the borders of Illinois.  The Illini signed just two in-state prospects in 2016.  Western Michigan signed four Illinois natives.

I know it's a MAC program, but Western Michigan is a MAC program with better overall talent than Illinois.  And it showed on Saturday.

Steps for Rebuilding

Patience is a virtue, and not something a lot of fans have.  Hell, the last coaching staff didn't have any and relied heavily on JUCOs far longer than they should have.  And frankly this isn't a talent deficit that one class will fix, especially at a school like Illinois.  It's going to take two to three straight solid classes to really get Illinois to a competitive place.

Lovie Smith and his staff are off to a decent start, but will need to finish strong with the 2017 class to really facilitate the change they are aiming for at Illinois.  And Lovie has stated more than once that he knows the rebuild won't happen overnight.  As long as Illinois fans have wanted to have a great program, it's tough to see the team take losses like the one they took Saturday.  And because of feelings like that, it's tough to be patient and understand that things might have to get worse before they can get better.

And while this staff hasn't ruled out the possibility of JUCO players, they will target players at positions where they already have commits who need time to develop (such as quarterback).

As of right now, Illinois has 11 committed players in the 2017 class.  

QB: Cam Thomas

RB: Mike Epstein

WR: Carmoni GreenRicky Smalling

OL: Vederian LoweLarry Boyd

DL: Olalere Oladipo

LB: Marc Mondesir

DB: Kendall SmithAntwan CollierTony Adams*

*Adams might very well end up as a receiver

Looking at the makeup of the class so far, a few things stand out:

  • Illinois needs to run the ball. In order to effectively run the ball, they need offensive linemen that can get positive push and create running lanes.  Big hogs like Lowe (6'5", 335) and Boyd (6'4", 325) can do just that.  Those are the more quintessential Big Ten offensive linemen
  • The passing game has been a little "chicken or the egg" as to whether the QB isn't throwing the deep ball or if the receivers just aren't getting open.  Adding guys like Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green, two explosive receivers who can create their own separation, will help open up the vertical passing game.
  • As I noted in a previous column, this recruiting class is much faster at the skill positions.  Illinois quite honestly has lacked speed at some key positions in the past, but guys like Smalling, Adams, Green, and Epstein change that for the better.

Illinois will still need to close out with key recruits in 2017 like Owen CarneyTrajon CottonJohn MitchellHoward WatkinsZeiden Dellinger, and others.  Winning recruiting battles for the linemen is especially important if Illinois wants to be competitive in the trenches.  And in a conference like the Big Ten, games are won and lost there.

But, of course, there's more to the formula than just a strong 2017 class.

The Illini will need to continue to build through 2018 and 2019.  It's still early, but numerous prospects, including several south of I-80, are already emerging as crucial targets for the Illini.

2018 Focus

The coup de grace in 2018 is Illini legacy and former Mt. Carmel (now IMG Academy) DB Houston Griffith.  A top-100 player nationally, Griffith is the type of player who holds offers from the "who's who" and would be making a huge statement should he buy into Lovie Smith's reconstruction process.

It's about more than just Griffith, though.  Several 2018 recruits are vital if Illinois wants to return to relevance on the field.  Gurnee Warren WR Micah Jones is a family friend of Smith and several former Bears players and is a big time WR target with big time offers.  Verdis Brown is a monster OL/DL with big-time offers already, but his first came from the Illini.  Devin O'Rourke is one of the better defensive end prospects from the Chicago area in the last few years.  

Bolingbrook athlete I'Shawn Stewart already holds offers from Illinois and Iowa, and is receiving interest from Arkansas.  And, of course, a lot of emphasis has already been placed on Solorio QB Quincy Patterson.  De La Salle LB Joseph Bonds will also be an interesting prospect to track as he seems poised to emerge onto the recruiting radar.

On top of the Chicago area, though, Illinois will continue to blanket the St. Louis area, where they have preliminarily had success in 2017.  Targets such as stud Chaminade defensive tackle Trevor Trout, CBC receivers Kamryn Babb and Cameron Brown, and Pattonville QB Kaleb Eleby.  

Nationally, Illinois will continue to target California, Florida, and Texas, though they may struggle to land key targets from those areas without a little more love in the national spotlight.  A big win this year would go a long way toward that cause.

2019 (Yes, 2019)

It's never too early to start thinking about 2019.  The recruiting board is still taking shape, but a few prospects are already on the Illini's radar and should be hearing from the Orange and Blue quite a bit over the next 2-3 years.

Illinois has known about Chatham Glenwood DL William Putnam for a while.  He's very athletic for his size, and being from within the 217 area code, is a no brainer to be a priority recruit.

One other recruit playing huge in the state's smallest classification is Decatur St. Teresa athlete Jacardia Wright.  The Bulldogs have been running over opponents this year, and Wright is a huge reason why.  Starting at both running back and safety, Wright is an impact player on both sides of the ball, and is a guy we'll see in person very soon.

But one of the most intriguing in-state guys regardless of class is Jason Bargy of Momence.  Bargy is a 6'5" 230 pound manchild who carries a 3.5 GPA, runs the 100m and 200m for his track team, and plays running back (not a typo) for Momence.  And yes, we'll have eyes on him very soon, too.

So what's your point?

Well, 3,000 (err.. 2990) words later, my point is this, and it's simple: In order to win consistently, Illinois needs to recruit, retain, and develop better talent.  They need players with competitive size and speed for the conference they're in.  They need to get talent that will make them clear favorites over MAC teams and give them the advantage over the middle and lower tiers of the Big Ten.  But they also need time to get it done.  

I can't emphasize enough that this isn't an overnight project.  This isn't something that will be accomplished in one season.  The last four years of recruiting did anything but lay the foundation for program stability.  The ever-revolving door of coaches and philosophies combined with mixed priorities and motivations resulted in recruiting without a unified plan. Junior college recruiting was far too relied-upon and led to a deficiency of experienced depth.  Early attrition in 2013 and 2014 only added on to that deficiency.

Though Lovie's staff did not recruit the class, the key to a lot of this could be the 2015 class.  It was rated highly for a reason and light on JUCO players.  Illinois will need to surround that group with talent in 2017 and 2018, and restock at quarterback, but the 2015 class has a chance to be the cornerstone for the rebuild in Champaign.  

Lovie and his staff know this won't be an easy task, and they will be put to the test over the next couple of years.  By all accounts, the staff are all great teachers that can develop the talent.  It's one of the highest (if not the highest) salaried staffs in Illinois football history.

But with that compensation comes great responsibility, and as 2017 QB commit Cam Thomas one put it, it's time to "Make Illinois Great Again."

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