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Evaluating the Illini football roster prior to 2017 Signing Day

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner delves into the returning Illinois football roster class by class

Lovie Smith's unprecedented mid-March hiring meant an unprecedented phenomenon. Most first-year coaches are hired in December, meaning they sign a recruiting class before their first season. Not Smith.

The Illini hired him a month after Signing Day, so during the 2016 season he coached only one player he recruited: grad transfer Hardy Nickerson.

Few of the players fit his staff's schemes. He lacked the athleticism and length he wants on defense. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee lacked the physicality he wants up front, the versatility he wants in a tight end and the running ability he wants in a quarterback. The staff simply can't wait to bring in its own hand-picked talent.

But the Feb. 1 Signing Day will only bring one class. Smith's staff still is coaching three classes recruited by Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit -- and that reality should suppress expectations the next two seasons.

Let's dive into the 2017 roster's scholarship players -- class by class -- what will be a bottom-heavy 2017 roster.

Seniors (10 players)

Starters: RB Kendrick Foster, WR Malik Turner, OT Christian DiLauro, CB Jaylen Dunlap 

Contributors: FB Nate Echard

Depth: ATH James Crawford, OL Jordan Fagan, OL Zach Heath, CB Ahmari Hayes, S Darwyn Kelly

This is quite the opposite from the departing senior class, which featured 13 starter-level players. This is the result largely of a 2014 recruiting class that included six JuCo prospects, three of which worked (Jihad WardCarroll Phillips and Geronimo Allison). It was a very short-term focused class for a coaching staff only looking to survive for another year. Also, one of the top prep prospects, Matt Domer, never made it to campus due to academic issues, and Peter Cvijanovic left after his brother, Simon, accused the staff of abuse -- which ultimately resulted in Tim Beckman's dismissal. 

But this also traces back to the 2013 recruiting class, when the Illini signed seven JuCo prospects who made minimal impact, instead of adding prep prospects to redshirt and develop. The top player in that class, QB Aaron Bailey, transferred. RB Miguel Hermosillo chose minor-league baseball over football. DT Merrick Jackson never made it to campus due to academic issues. DE Paul James III was dismissed from the team after multiple violations of team rules. DT Bryce Douglas was put on medical scholarship before he transferred.

This is what Beckman's staff left for Lovie Smith. The four starters are quality players, but none of these guys will be high draft picks. Turner seems to be the only one with All-Big Ten potential -- though he's ideally a No. 2 target. A team with such a small and flawed senior class will struggle to find success.

Juniors (13)

Starters: LB Tre Watson, DL Tito Odenigbo, OL Nick Allegretti, K Chase McLaughlin (scholarship?)

Contributors: QB Chayce Crouch, RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, WR Sam Mays, LB Julian Jones, DE Henry McGrew

Depth: CB Chris James, S Julian Hylton, FB Austin Roberts, DE Sean Adesanya

This class could be strengthened with some JuCo prospects, but you hope the new staff learned from the previous staff's errors and doesn't take as many fliers on borderline JuCo prospects. If they add JuCo transfers, they need to have the size and athleticism of players like Ward, Phillips and Allison.

Watson and Allegretti could be two of the team's best veterans and could be very good Big Ten players. Odenigbo looks like a solid defensive lineman who could play DT or DE. Crouch, Vaughn, Jones and Mays are the wild cards. Crouch is coming off a serious shoulder injury and likely will miss the spring. Plus, Illinois will look to add an immediate QB starter via the transfer market. Vaughn is the most talented running back on the roster but was the third most productive this season -- and he certainly wasn't happy about that. Jones has the size and athleticism but made too many mistakes this past season. Mays has the athleticism and length but needs to add strength and find consistency. McGrew and Adesanya will have roles because of the black hole at defensive end, but neither has proven much to this point.

McLaughlin originally was a walk-on player but earned the starting job last year, so we'll consider him a scholarship player for now.

Sophomores (23)

Starters: RB Reggie Corbin, WR Mike Dudek, OL Gabe Megginson, DT Kenyon Jackson, DT Jamal Milan, FS Stanley Green, SS Patrick Nelson, CB Cameron Watkins

Contributors: RB Dre Brown, WR Dominic Thieman, TE Caleb Reams, WR/TE Zarrian Holcombe, OL Darta Lee, OL Adam Solomon, DL Tymir Oliver, LB Dele' Harding, LB Jake Hansen, LB Justice Williams

Depth: QB Jeff George Jr., RB Tre Nation, DL Zeke Martin CB Frank Sumpter, ATH Trenard Davis

By far the strongest class on the roster. The downside is that it means the senior and junior classes are subpar. The good news is that the staff has this class for three seasons. Dudek's future is uncertain after two missed seasons due to injury, but he's an All-Big Ten talent if he returns to 80 percent of his freshman season. Megginson and Milan have next-level potential. Jackson, Green, Nelson and Watkins all showed flashes this season and could be quality starters. Brown also is a wild card after missing two straight years with separate ACL tears in separate knees, but he won the No. 2 running back job in each of the last two springs.

Credit Bill Cubit and his staff for adding contributors in a Class of 2016 that should've probably been much worse given that they recruited on a two-year deal -- which turned into a three-month deal. In addition to Jackson and Green, several players look like future starters or rotation players: Lee, Harding, Oliver, Hansen, Thieman and Holcombe.

When this class enters its senior season, Illinois could be pretty deep and pretty competitive in the Big Ten.

Redshirt freshmen (11)

Contributors: Doug Kramer, TE Griffin Palmer

Depth: WR Mj McGriff, TE Andrew Trainer, OL Kurt Gavin OL Jake Cerny, DE Brandon Jones, LB Christion Abercrombie, LB Ayo Shogbonyo, DB Evan Jones, S Harvey Clayton Jr.

Cubit's staff also had to take some fliers late in the Class of 2016. Many of these players are projects or have flawed skill sets. Palmer could play a big role though because he looks like he has the most well-rounded skill set of the current tight ends. Kramer is undersized but dressed every game this season. He's a tough, physical center who could compete for a starting spot next season. Some of the depth pieces may not fit with the new scheme. Most are either undersized or not all that athletic. Most of the incoming freshmen -- hand-picked by the new staff -- will leap them on the depth chart. But a few to watch: McGriff has legit speed and quickness, Trainer has a huge frame, Gavin is physical and Jones is a pretty good athlete.

What's next?

Illinois will add a full class of 25 in February for the Class of 2017. Though the Illini could sign a few players during the early-enrollee/JuCO signing period, which starts Dec. 19. Some of those scholarships can be back-counted to the Class of 2016. The number  of "back-counts" right now appears to be about three or four. So three or four early enrollees plus a 25-man signing class in 2017 could allow Illinois to add 28 or 29 players. That, of course, assumes no attrition between then and now -- and that's not likely. So the number is fluid. But count on Illinois adding a transfer quarterback and JuCo targets at defensive end and cornerback, and possibly at tight end and offensive line.

Smith and his staff were left with a flawed, unbalanced roster with not enough talent. Even a full Class of 2017 won't fix that. But it's a significant big first step, considering it could add one-third of its 2017 roster in the next few months.

Check out the latest Recruiting Board Reset for what Illinois needs and wants in the Class of 2017.

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