Illinois football secures a 25-man class of 2016 on National Signing Day

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By Charlotte Carroll, Staff writer

The group contains 17 all-staters and picked up 11 state titles. The class includes 17 skill position players and eight linemen. There are 11 offensive players, 13 defensive players and one special teams player — Florida kicker James McCourt.

Cubit’s recruiting pitch was focused on Illinois’ academics and prestige, resulting in a combined recruit grade point average of 3.08.

Illinois’ recruiting class includes 19 3-star players and five 2-star players. The Illini had two 4-star commits, 18 3-star recruits and four 2-star recruits in its 2015 recruiting class under former head coach Tim Beckman.

But Cubit isn’t worried about his new players’ rankings.

“I’ve coached five-star recruits that never made it,” Cubit said. “I’ve coached a ton of 2-star players that are still playing in the League. Everyone gets caught up in the stars. I’m not looking for stars.”

Instead, his staff’s focus was on the compatibility of recruits in Illinois’ system — even if it meant getting recruits at the last minute. Cubit guessed he picked up eight commits in the the three days before National Signing Day.

In a new defensive scheme without a LEO position, it means looking for athletes, especially linebackers, who can run and have long arms.

“To me, these were more handpicked guys,” said Mike Phair, defensive coordinator. “We went out and found them. Yeah, they were found a little later, but we went out and found exactly what we were looking for. As coach said, ‘If a guy fell through, we had another guy sitting there ready for him.’”

This year’s signing class has only one junior college transfer — defensive back Ahmari Hayes of Davis, California, an early enrollee. That is compared to six in Beckman’s 2015 recruiting class.

While the defense was focused on recruiting for a new system, the offense locked up two wide receivers and a running back — Tre Nation of Leeds, Alabama — to add to the mix. Nation recorded more than 7,000 rushing yards and 120 touchdowns in his high school career.

Four offensive lineman were added to the list with Darta Lee and Eddy Fish particularly catching offensive line coach A.J. Ricker’s eye as potential freshman depth-chart additions because of their size. Lee is 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds. Fish is 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds.

Fish only played two years of high school football, so Ricker has hopes for his college potential.

“His best football is ahead of him,” Ricker said. “He’s a young guy who’s really only played two years in a good program. I mean he’s a big kid that can also move. I just don’t think he knows yet what his body can do. I think after one year of maturity or maybe just even a summer, I’ll be curious to see what he can do.”

Illinois will have a freshman quarterback: 3-star recruit Eli Peters of Jacksonville, Florida, who was one of the Illini’s three early enrollees.

With the early enrollees, Illinois has three scholarships left to offer for the upcoming year. But Cubit said the there was about one positon that the Illini came up short with and that because of this, recruiting isn’t over.

“I’m not bringing in a guy who I don’t think can play, just to fill the roster,” Cubit said.

But even as Cubit fills the scholarship positions for next season, his mind is already on the 2017 recruiting class.

He started talking to coaches and visiting schools in December. Illinois had around 200 players come out for Junior Day, according to Cubit.

He said the length of the recruiting process hurt Illinois’ chances this past year because with coaching changes, the staff did not have the time to develop relationships.

When asked about his position’s stability, Cubit was not phased. He said his pitch to recruits has been confirming that he will still be at Illinois next year and that he tells recruits the way it stands with honesty.

“I’m not into fluff,” Cubit said. “I’m into hard-nosed football players that want the right things.”

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@charlottecrrll