Tim Beckman did a pretty good job at Toledo. In his last two years at the program, he had turned a middling MAC school into somewhat of a conference powerhouse, cashing in back to back 7-1 conference records. A lot of that had to do with his ability to recruit. After a 2009 NSD that had Toledo battling with Kent State and Akron at the bottom of the conference rankings, he brought in 3 consecutive classes that routinely battled Temple for the top spot in the MAC rankings.
It was only natural, then, that Illini fans clung to his recruiting prowess when evaluating a hire that otherwise seemed disappointing to many of the fans. In his first full year recruiting, that faith may have been rewarded, if not for a late spree of defections.
A 2-10 season is obviously going to hurt any team, and it hit the Illini fairly hard; both for the obvious reason (you lose a lot of the hope you've piped into prospects' ears), and the collateral damage (heads have to roll, and relationships with prospects can be disrupted). As assistants were forced out, a once-strong Illini class was hit hard by defections.
IL LB Reggie Spearman, whose .8581 247 average would have put him as the 6th highest rated prospect in Illinois' class, flipped to Iowa just before signing day in a move that was not altogether surprising, according to Tom Fornelli of The Champaign Room (from January, 11):
First there's our old friend Reggie Spearman who still seems to have a hard time understanding what the word "commitment" means.
"Every school is still in it and I have no favorites right now," the three-star linebacker recently told Rivals. "I am just going to hold out until Signing Day and pick my school.
"I am still committed to Illinois right now, but I am still considering other schools so whatever happens on Signing Day happens."
There was also MI S Joshua Jones, whose .8506 average would also have been good for 6th in the class. Jones decommitted in January and ended up signing with NC State after also visiting Michigan State and Pitt. Then, as Michigan fans should be well aware of, there was Reon Dawson, whose .8494 average would have been good for 7th in the class, who signed with Michigan after we lost Gareon Conley. Illinois would also lose a pair of JUCO commits just before they could sign; DE Kyle Kragen, who flipped to Cal, and S David Guthrie, who flipped to New Mexico just a day after pledging to Illinois.
Still, despite the late attrition and horrible season, Beckman closed out a class that would finish 8th in the Big Ten. Oh, and they kept the crown jewel, QB Aaron Bailey, which makes things just...just fine.
In recent weeks with a few players defecting from the 2013 Illinois class, I was upset by some and pretty indifferent about others, but at the end of the day there was only one defection that would have really ruined this class for me. That would have been Aaron Bailey.
Thankfully Bailey never wavered in his decision to come to Illinois, and that's a good thing because in a class with some pretty good talent -- and roster depth -- Bailey has always been the most important part of Tim Beckman's first actual class. He's the kind of player that can help turn this program around, both for his talent on the field and in the fact that he was one of the top players in the state and he decided to stay home with the Illini.
S Zane Petty. The former Colorado State Ram transferred via junior college with the hopes of immediately taking over a starting job at safety. Although I think he's close to his ceiling, he's very instinctive and a brutal hitter. The NFL potential might not be there, but he'll almost certainly be in the Illini's plans this year.
STAR Eric Finney. Another JUCO transfer, Finney hopes to step in at the vacated STAR position, a sort of LB/S hybrid position reminiscent of the SAM linebacker in GERG's system. Finney will probably need to add some weight, but I like his quickness and aggression.
QB Aaron Bailey. Slot this into the 'obvious things are obvious' category. Bailey is very clearly the crown jewel of this class, picking Illinois over the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame, and sticking with that throughout the process. While the quarterback position is harder to get acclimated to that others, Bailey might be the best fit for Bill Cubit's offense currently on the roster, and it's not like that offense could get much worse.
DT Abe Cajuste. I know, it seems cheap that these are almost exclusively JUCO guys, but that's the point of bringing them in, right? Cajuste is slotted to take over the spot vacated by Akeem Spence on the defensive line. He's a bit of a tweener who will need to add weight, but he could be a solid contributor on the line. Probably not much more than that, but Illinois isn't in a position to turn down solid at the moment.
OL Dallas Hinkhouse. I'm not really that huge of a fan of Hinkhouse's tape, but the OL was one of the worst units in the B1G last year, and is clearly in need of some changed. Hinkhouse will try to contribute at tackle and aid a leaky pass blocking line that last year allowed a staggering 39 sacks, an average of 3.25 per game. At 270 pounds, he'll need to add weight and build chemistry with the other offensive linemen. But like the offense as a whole, the line couldn't get much worse.
DOWN THE ROAD CONTRIBUTORS
DL Jarrod Clements. A teammate of Michigan signees Reon Dawson and Mike McCray, 'Chunky' was very active in the middle of Trotwood-Madison's line. With time and weight, Clements could continue the pedigree of defensive linemen the Illini send to the league.
TE Tyler White. While he already has the size to play (245 lbs), White is very raw. Still, you have to like the athleticism you see on film coupled with that size. I also see an intensity to his game that can make a good TE great. With starting TE Jon Davis returning next year, a redshirt is likely. But White's long term potential could be special, and is certainly worth keeping an eye on.
DB Caleb Day. A decent athlete, Day claimed an offer from Ohio State before picking the Illini, and was a four star on Rivals. In a modest class, you might expect him to contribute early, but I think Day is far away from the field. He makes a lot of false steps on defense, and takes poor tackling angles. His instincts aren't there to play safety yet, and I think he'll need to make strides in the S&C program before he makes an impact at CB. Still, down the road, he could have a Terry Hawthorne-like career if he really works at it.
DE Paul James. Bailey was almost universally hailed as the stud of the class, but if anyone could have challenged that, it would have been James. The former Florida High School standout was once committed to West Virginia and claimed offers from the likes of Alabama, Miami, and Florida State. Although they might not have been waiting at his door when he left the Mountaineers, Beckman and his staff still did a good job of fighting off Charlie Strong, whose ability to recruit Florida is well documented. James, like any other young lineman, struggles with consistency and a limited array of pass rushing moves, but time and coaching should help him develop into one of the B1G's premier linemen.
RB Kendrick Foster. I understand why other schools didn't recruit Kendrick Foster. His height, size, and hip stiffness will be limiting factors he'll have to battle throughout his career. What I do like about Foster is he does all the little things right. He's aggressive going through the line, he has very concise footwork, and he never gives up on a play. Illinois is young at the RB position right now, but Foster could be a very reliable option later in his career.
COMPARING THEM TO MICHIGAN
Before I start, I should acknowledge that you can likely compare just about all of the classes to Michigan's very succinctly; 10 are worse, 1 is about even. HOWEVER, that won't stop me from looking a bit closer, just to see how big the disparity is.
Which, in this case, is pretty big. Aaron Bailey's 247 composite average of .9276 would slot him as just the twelfth best prospect in Michigan's class, barely edging out Logan Tuley-Tillman. Their second highest prospect, Paul James, would be the twenty-second best player in Michigan's class, with an average of .8753, putting him just behind Dan Samuelson. If you take out long snapper Scott Sypniewski from the equation, the lowest rated prospect in Michigan's 2013 class (Reon Dawson) is rated higher than 72% of Illinois' class. On top of that, Michigan's entire class (sans Sypniewski) is rated higher than Illinois' average composite score of .8291.
I think you get the point, but I'll throw a few more comparative statistics out there for you. 16% of Illinois' class (4 signees) is a composite top 500 player nationally. For Michigan, that number is 77%. When you look at top 200 players, the ratio increases. 4% (1 player) of Illinois' class is in the composite top 200. For Michigan, that number is 46%.
I'm not sure if that speaks more about Michigan's ability to recruit or Illinois'. I'll let you decide. Also of note- those comparitive numbers are only going to get worse as we trudge towards the Minnesotas and Purdues of the world, so stay tuned.
OTHER NOTES AND CHART-LIKE THINGS
-- There are a few names you might recognize from this class. As mentioned above,
-->Jarrod Clements is a teammate of Mike McCray and Reon Dawson, but never received a UM offer.
-->Caleb Day claimed one, but that was later dispelled; Scout is the only site still listing Michigan.
-->Safety James Crawford is the nephew of Charles Woodson. Some were hoping Michigan might offer, and at one point, he looked like the back-up plan for when we missed out on Leon McQuay. However, McQuay went to USC, Dawson came to Michigan, and Crawford headed to Illinois.
--> CB Jaylen Dunlap went to Crete-Monee (HS of Laquon Treadwell), and received fleeting interest from Michigan.
-- Illinois is off to a decent start in the 2014 class. The first commit of the class was Tito Odenigbo, brother of former blue chipper Ifeadi Odenigbo. His twitter tag is Odenigbro, which automatically makes him my favorite Illinois player in the next class. They're in on a few highly rated prospects, but as of right now, it looks like most of Illinois' top talent is going to escape out of state again. The most important recruit right now, though, is likely former Oklahoma State QB Wes Lunt, who is rumored to have the Illini at the top of his list.
--Here's a pie chart of the states these Illini hail from.
All things considered, Beckman did well to finish with the 8th ranked class in the conference despite having the worst record in the conference. It certainly speaks to his ability to bring in top talent that players like Paul James and Aaron Bailey ended up in the class. With another year and hopefully some growth in the win column, Beckman might end up holding onto the Reggie Spearmans of the world. When that happens, a climb into the top half of the conference isn't out of the question.