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How Illinois landed a solid class despite facing obstacles unlike any other team

Illinois coach Bill Cubit, right, looks over paperwork for a 2016 recruiting class that he and his staff believe can make an instant impact for the Illini. Heather Coit/The News-Gazette via AP

Illinois announced its 25-member recruiting class Wednesday with the typical fanfare. Prolific social media updates. Highlight videos. Glowing adjectives from coaches about the next batch of Illini.

But there is nothing typical about the circumstances under which Illinois secured its class. No FBS staff recruited under the conditions that Bill Cubit and his assistants faced, ones they would just as soon never go through again.

Recruiting is, at its core, about the future, but the Illinois coaches approached the 2016 cycle immersed in the moment. They had no alternative. Cubit is working under a two-year contract, the school is still searching for an athletic director and the coach to whom six eventual signees committed, Tim Beckman, was dismissed a week before the 2015 season opener for mistreating players.

"It was way different," Cubit said.

The end product didn’t make much of a national or regional splash. ESPN Recruiting ranked Illinois’ class last in the Big Ten and 71st nationally, ahead of only three Power 5 programs (Boston College, Kansas and Colorado). But Illinois made it to signing day after a blustery finish, and with a class that the coaches believe will brighten the program’s outlook right away.

Here’s how the class came together:

Step 1: Protect the pledges and cast a wider net

Illinois had 14 players verbally committed for the 2016 class on Aug. 28, the day the school fired Beckman and elevated Cubit from offensive coordinator to interim head coach. Cubit immediately called the committed prospects as well as those whom Illinois felt were close to pledging, and explained the situation. New coaches conduct similar exercises in December, but unlike Cubit, they can sell some semblance of stability.

The good news was no players jumped ship. In fact, defensive end Brandon Jones committed to Illinois two days after the changes.

"I was extremely encouraged by the guys not jumping off the boat," said Scott Yielding, Illinois’ director of player personnel. "They stayed with us. They had faith that we were going to get it done."

But Cubit had to do more. Decommitments and poaching are recruiting regularities, even for programs on firm footing. Illinois had become exposed.

"Our pool had to be much bigger than normal because there were going to be some questions out there," Cubit said.

Step 2: Explain the coaching realities

The Illinois coaches knew their employment situation would be used against them in recruiting. So they pushed the university’s strong academic reputation to prospects. They encouraged them to spend time around the Illini players.

They also were candid about the volatile coaching landscape in college football. Though they couldn’t guarantee their futures at Illinois, they noted those who do so are simply deluding recruits.

"We let everybody know this is a year-to-year deal," said offensive coordinator Ryan Cubit, who served as Illinois’ recruiting coordinator for the 2016 class. "Just because you have years in your contract, all that’s telling you is how much more money the university has to buy you out. That resonated with the guys.

"It hurt us, but it didn’t hurt us as much as people think."

Bill Cubit’s move to permanent coach on Nov. 28, even with the short contract, gave him some ammo.

"During the season, there were a lot of people who said we wouldn’t be here, and that didn’t happen," Bill Cubit told recruits. "The way the college landscape is right now, you don’t have much time anyway. You let them understand there was a lot of movement this past year and there will probably be a lot of movement next year.

"Everybody’s pedal to the metal."

Step 3: Find immediate contributors

Most recruiting classes can’t be fairly judged for several seasons. But one way or another, there will be a verdict on Illinois’ class this fall. Early playing time was a major pitch point for the Illini coaches.

The coaches needed immediate contributors at spots like linebacker, where they lose All-Big Ten standout Mason Monheim and others. Bill Cubit wanted long, rangy players and sound tacklers for the defensive back seven.

Ryan Cubit expects true freshmen to play at linebacker, defensive line, wide receiver and defensive back, among other spots.

"We told them all, 'We’re swinging for the fences. We’re not settling. We’re going for the best players who can play right away because we have to win now,'" he said. "The ones that jumped in understood that. That’s why they signed with us."

The staff also gained a fresh perspective when five new assistants came aboard following the season. After Christmas, the coaches spent four 12-hour days in the office evaluating recruiting tape and transcripts. Illinois has one of the Big Ten’s highest academic thresholds for recruits.

"When the new guys came on the staff, that added new perspectives on the type of people that are out there," Bill Cubit said. "Guys come in and say, 'How about this guy? How about that guy?'

"All of a sudden, we’re recruiting in areas that the staff before didn’t have contacts."

In the pre-signing day scramble, Illinois picked up multiple recruits from Maryland, Georgia, Texas and Florida.

Step 4: Survive the stretch run

Despite the coaching flux and a 5-7 season, Illinois’ recruiting remained relatively stable as the dead period finished up in mid-January. Then, the shuffling started.

Illinois had four decommitments in a week. It added four players on Monday alone and seven between Saturday and Tuesday. It had players flip to other programs (offensive lineman Tre Johnson went to Miami) and flipped recruits of its own (defensive lineman Izon Pulley flipped from Miami to Illinois).

"There were a couple twists and turns," Ryan Cubit said. "But going down the stretch, 85-90 percent of the guys we really wanted, we got. There was not a guy we felt 100 percent with who was in the boat who we really wanted who flipped."

Although Illinois' recruiting board changed dramatically the past three weeks, the Illini landed their five highest-rated recruits during the final push, including tight end Zarrian Holcombe, a one-time Texas A&M pledge.

"There’s always surprises," Yielding said. "I’ve been places where you have a coach who’s pretty well entrenched, he’s not going anywhere, and you still could potentially lose a guy that last week.

"It was an up-and-down situation, but one that worked out in the end."

Bill Cubit’s next task is clear: win more games this season, impress the new AD and earn greater security for himself and his staff. The recruiting push, meanwhile, doesn’t slow down. Illinois hosted about 200 junior prospects on campus last weekend.

"I’ve never had an experience like this, ever," Ryan Cubit said. "It’s been a grind, it really has. But our situation’s going to get better and better. We’re going to win games here, we believe that. We’re excited about what’s going on."