By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Around the country, Wednesday was National Signing Day for college football programs. But for University of Illinois fans, it was Sighing Day, too.
Illini coach Tim Beckman’s third recruiting class ranked 13th out of 14 Big Ten teams, according to 247sports.com’s composite rankings, which was one spot behind newbie Rutgers and four spots behind traditional doormat Indiana. Thank goodness, at least, for Purdue, which fell behind Illinois at No. 14.
Beyond that, according to Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate, out of of Illinois’ 13 prep signees, only one – Mount Carmel running back Matt Domer – had even one other offer from a Big Ten school per Scout.com data, and that came from the Hoosiers.
Now, that isn’t to say that the rankings of recruiting services should be taken as gospel (they most certainly shouldn’t) or that coaches at major programs don’t overlook talented kids (they most certainly do), but it does say that there isn’t much buzz about this year’s Illini class, even if the coaches are trying their best to create some.
In Tate’s column, Illini recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh presented an argument that a big reason why some of the Illini’s signees didn’t have more offers and stars is because they committed to Illinois early or were injured during their senior season, as in the case of Rice Lake, Wis., linebacker Austin Roberts.
“People get infatuated with stars and offers,” Golesh said. “If Austin Roberts and (Ohio quarterback) Chayce Crouch had wanted to sell themselves and publicize offers, that would have put them back in the spotlight and increased their rankings.”
Golesh also singled out Kansas linebacker Henry McGrew, Neuqua Valley receiver Mike Dudek and Ohio lineman Tito Odenigbo as others who pledged early to Illinois, potentially stopping “an influx” of other schools from offering them.
Now, there may be some truth to all of that. And I do think there are some players among Illinois’ class who hold some promise, although I’m always skeptical about the upside and stability of junior college recruits, which Illinois is relying heavily upon at the receiver and defensive line positions. No doubt some athletes will surprise us, although others will surely disappoint. But what troubles me the most about Illinois’ recruiting efforts is that in Year 3 of the Beckman era, there still doesn’t seem to be much beckoning of the state’s top talent to Champaign.
This year, Illinois signed only five players from the Land of Lincoln. That’s a paltry number for a state with so many high school students, yet it still prompted Beckman to foolishly take a shot at Northwestern, his in-state obsession, by saying during Wednesday’s press conference, “We signed four football players out of ‘the state of Chicago,’ as we call it. That was more than the actual team that is in Chicago.”
Now, of course, Northwestern isn’t actually in Chicago – unless Beckman thinks Evanston is a city neighborhood like Rogers Park or Edgewater – and, of course, the coach was taking a shot at NU’s slogan, “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” But for the guy heading up the football program at a school that has its own slogan of, “Our State. Our Team,” Beckman really has no business bragging about his in-state recruiting haul.
Noting that 52 players on the Illini roster do hail from Illinois, Beckman added on Wednesday, “We continue to strive to recruit our state and fill the roster with Illinois players.”
But saying that is not unlike the Cubs talking about stockpiling arms to avoid talking about how they really don’t have any clear-cut pitchers. Until Illinois starts grabbing its share of the top in-state recruits rather than simply listing local kids on the roster, one can’t expect a high level of success for the program. Because, if you can’t convince any of your own state’s top players to stay home, how can you expect to convince other state’s top players to come here?
As Beckman heads into his third season at the Illini helm, I’m still searching for a sign as to why he was hired to replace Ron Zook, who deserved to be fired after seven inconsistent seasons and a 34-51 record. To this point, Beckman hasn’t shown to be a superior coach (Zook was 13-12 in his final two seasons, Beckman is 6-18 in his first two), and he hasn’t shown to be a superior recruiter (Wednesday’s poorly rated class, a case in point).
All signs are pointing to a must-win fall for Beckman if he hopes to keep his coaching career at Illinois alive – and to actually breathe some life into his Illini recruiting.