Junior college transfers find family in Illinois football


Illinois’ Geronimo Allison (8) reaches out for the ball while being covered by Taylor Barton (3) during the annual Orange and Blue Spring Game on April 13. Allison was a junior transfer to Illinois.   

By Charlotte Carroll

It may be a good day or a bad day for Illinois wide receiver Geronimo Allison, but his Illini teammates can read his facial expressions regardless.

It may be a good day or a bad day (usually it’s a good day) for Illinois defensive end Jihad Ward, but he always can look to Tim Beckman and the Illini coaching staff as father figures.

The Illinois program has provided a brotherhood for junior college transfers such as Allison and Ward, as they adjust to life at a Big Ten school. It has made a family atmosphere out of the isolation often felt by junior college athletes as they vie for a spot on a Division I roster.  

“In junior college, you really don’t have communication because everyone wants it more than the other person,” Ward said. “They don’t really work as a unit because they’re still focusing on going to a Division I football school. But when you are up here, it doesn’t matter if you don’t start or (if you) start, as long as you are willing to help the team.”

It’s a mentality that drove Ward to travel more than two hours to football practice at his junior college in New York. It motivated him to go four blocks from his school in Times Square to a health club where, in his words “if people wanted to work out and lift weights, they could lift weights.”

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    That time spent traveling is a far cry from the mere minutes it now takes Ward to get from the field to the weight room.

    For junior college players, the differences between them and those who arrived at Illinois straight out of high school begin to evaporate. Once integrated into the locker room, the goals are no longer different. Yet, there’s a commonality between all of the transfers.

    “I don’t really notice the difference but at the same time, I could relate to the guys that come from junior college,” Allison said. “They know the struggle that junior college brings. They kind of have that same hunger that you have when you’re coming from that world.”

    And while the interaction in the locker room forms a bond, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit acknowledged the difficulties junior college transfer wide receivers may face when adapting to so many different coverages. But, the teaching once the players get to camp is invaluable, he added.  

    It has paid off for the five junior college students from the 2014 football class. Three, including Allison, Ward and linebacker Carroll Phillips were among the first four newcomers to be de-striped. It’s tradition to place a single white stripe on a newcomer’s helmets in training camp. Then when teammates deem them worthy, the stripe is removed and they are no longer considered newcomers.

    “I think the JUCO players I’ve been around not just here, also at Toledo, at Oklahoma State, really at Ohio State we had one too, were players that came in a little more mature,” Beckman said. “They understand that we’re playing against 20-year-old men. Carroll Phillips, Jihad Ward, Gemo — all the guys we brought in JUCO — they know how to play the tempo that the game is played at. They don’t have to learn that.”

    With the aptitude there, it’s the little things that have made a big difference as they adjust to life at a Big Ten program. And whether it’s the conveniences of campus or the sense of family they now feel, Illinois has become a place of brotherhood for these players.

    “When I first committed here, I just felt comfortable and I felt the love,” Ward said. “And I’m going to keep repeating it because I keep feeling the love. Every day I wake up, I put a smile on my face.”

    Charlotte is a sophomore in Media. She can be reached at [email protected] and @charlottecrrll.