Success of new recruits depends on leadership

It’s that time of year again when college football makes a weird appearance in the realm of relevance, and people we’ve never heard of become the most important subjects of conversation. Signing day and the forthcoming spring football “season,” are both largely overblown.

That’s not to say it’s unimportant.

Recruiting in football, while not as glamorous as men’s basketball — one freshman can’t change your program — is perhaps the most demanding part of a coach’s job. For Illinois fans, it’s a matter of whether head coach Tim Beckman and company can breakthrough into the ranks of the Big Ten’s middle tier.

This year’s class does not change the face of Illinois football, but it does address some needs and should not be considered a failure.

Beckman and company managed to snag just one four-star recruit, per Scout.com, but that four-star recruit, Jihad Ward, is a defensive lineman. Illinois’ defensive line was its weakest position group in 2013, and the 6-foot-7 behemoth should solidify a position group that was severely lacking in size. He weighs 285 pounds, which is somewhat slim for a defensive tackle at that height, but he’s got all spring and summer — not to mention four seasons — to bulk up. Ward is a three-star recruit per Rivals.com.

Tre Watson is Illinois’ only three-star linebacker recruit (two stars per Rivals), which is a concern for a unit that just lost Jonathan Brown.

No heroic signing was made in the secondary, but Illinois really should be more focused on developing the talent it already has in that department.

On offense, the area Illinois best hit on was wide receiver. Tyrin Stone-Davis, whose twin brother Tyree (a cornerback) signed a national letter of intent to Illinois but is no longer a part of the class; Michael Dudek, who was taken sixth overall in the team’s spring squad draft; Geronimo Allison, who revives the Florida receiver pipeline for Illinois that produced A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines; and Malik Turner, who hails from state champion and resident villain Sacred Heart-Griffin (Go, Solons!), are all three-star recruits who should help fill the void left by Ryan Lankford, Steve Hull and Miles Osei.

The biggest hole for Illinois is actually not in the department of what you would call “tangibles,” which is a pretty significant concern for a team that went 4-8.

After being the face of Illinois football for four years, Nathan Scheelhaase is gone. The face of the defense, Brown, is also gone.

Beckman touched on the subject of leadership Wednesday. He said he misses the leadership of the senior class, and he may be on to something. Beyond the aforementioned faces, Hull, Osei, Lankford, Tim Kynard and Corey Lewis were all steadying presences in the locker room as well. The senior class kept a terrible team pushing forward and getting better and competing with better rosters. Without their influence off the field, Illinois may have given up in a way similar to how it did in 2012, and the program would be staring at a 22-game conference losing streak.

In year one of Beckman’s regime, there was not enough leadership. In year two, the senior class provided it. In year three, Beckman and his staff have to take charge. The senior class will have some notable figures: Reilly O’Toole, Donovonn Young, Simon Cvijanovic, Houston Bates, Zane Petty and Austin Teitsma; however, O’Toole and Young are in position to be backups, and Petty and Teitsma were liabilities on defense last season.

The leadership will have to come from players who don’t have “it’s my last shot” as motivation. Guys like Wes Lunt, Mason Monheim, V’Angelo Bentley, Josh Ferguson, Spencer Harris and Teko Powell.

The leadership has to come from them — and the coaching staff has to be able to keep this team’s interest even if things go bad.

Otherwise, things could regress from last season, and Illinois, more specifically Beckman, have neither much room nor much time for regression.

The recruiting class could pan out, or it could fizzle. A lot of that development depends on the leadership of the program. Going forward without Scheelhaase, it’s time for Illinois football to get a new face.

But whose?

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.