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Illini hope transfer trail leads to wins

August, 15, 2014
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Illinois isn't trying to be Kansas State. The Illini would love to replicate K-State's on-field results, but their recent influx of junior college players isn't an effort to model what Bill Snyder has done in the Little Apple.

It boils down to basic math and basic needs.

"We needed depth, man," coach Tim Beckman told ESPN.com. "We just needed a bunch of depth."

[+] EnlargeWes Lunt
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsIllinois quarterback Wes Lunt isn't lacking major college football experience.
Illinois brought in six junior college players in 2013 and six more for the 2014 season. Add in quarterback Wes Lunt, who transferred from a four-year school (Oklahoma State) and will be eligible to play this fall, and the depth chart is filled with transfers in key roles. There are some non-transfer standouts, such as running back Josh Ferguson, but if you're studying up on the 2014 Illini, get to know the jucos -- wide receiver Geronimo Allison and defensive linemen Jihad Ward and Carroll Phillips, among others.

The program-building model isn't ideal, but if the transfers pan out, Illinois could get the bowl boost it sorely needs.

"Some people who feel like, 'We're building a program, we've got five, six years to do this,' they may not go that junior college route," said Alex Golesh, Illinois tight ends and running backs coach, and the team's recruiting coordinator. "We felt, 'Hey, we've got to get this thing going right now,' and this was our answer."

Beckman first realized the depth desperation after his first season, when the team reconvened for practice in March 2013. He and his staff had inherited a large senior class in 2012, but the subsequent two classes had atrophied. There were only about a dozen players left in each.

The coaches had a choice: start a bunch of freshmen and sophomores or look for immediate help elsewhere.

"You want to know how bad the number situation was here?" Beckman asked. "We didn't have enough defensive backs to be two deep."

So they picked up Zane Petty, a junior college safety from California who made seven starts last season. They added another California juco, Eric Finney, to play the Star position (safety/outside linebacker), and Martize Barr, a former New Mexico receiver/safety who landed at Iowa Western Community College. Barr originally was pegged for the secondary but moved to wide receiver.

The wide receiver and defensive line groups Illinois trots out this fall will reflect the junior college push. Barr and Allison should start, and Tyrin Stone-Davis, a Philadelphia native who played juco ball in California, will be in the rotation. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Ward is expected to be a major contributor on the defensive line, along with Phillips at the Leo (rush end) and Joe Fotu and Abe Cajuste.

"This defensive line is like a different group," Golesh said. "Talk about dudes that look like they're supposed to look like and play like they're supposed to play."

Junior college recruiting isn't nearly as common in the Big Ten as it is in other leagues, but things are shifting. Teams that never used to bring in jucos, such as Wisconsin and Penn State, suddenly have a few on the roster.

Before initiating the push, Beckman consulted with Illinois' admissions office to gauge who could get into school. The coaches received transcripts from about 120 players, and the university identified who could make it academically. Only 25 to 30 players received the green light.

[+] EnlargeGeronimo Allison
Courtesy University of Illinois AthleticsReceiver Geronimo Allison is one of 12 junior college players to transfer to Illinois in the past two seasons.
Golesh pinpointed which junior colleges had strong enough academic reputations and curriculums. Illinois almost only recruits junior colleges in California, Iowa (particularly Iowa Western in Council Bluffs, which regularly sends players to FBS programs) and a handful in state and in the Northeast.

The approach reduces the risk often attached to junior college players.

"We're recruiting a high-academic, junior college kid," Golesh said. "Those kids who are right on the border, we're not recruiting them because we can't get them in school. So there's one of your red flags that you cross off."

As Golesh dove deeper into junior college recruiting, he realized something else. Like Bill Snyder says about juco players: The perception out there is something went wrong in his high school career. Young people are young people. What's the quality of their character?

"You go recruit the California junior colleges and it's amazing how many high school qualifiers are out there that were just overlooked because there are so many kids and the state is so big," Golesh said. "The misconception is the kid committed a crime or didn't qualify out of high school. That's not the case anymore."

Ward didn't qualify academically coming out of high school in Philadelphia, so he spent two years at Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in New York. He connected with Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, a fellow Philly native, and signed with Illinois in February.

"For two years, I've been grinding," Ward said. "I always think the time is now. A lot of juco players, they're hungry. If you're not hungry, then I don't know what to say. We come here to eat."

Jucos arrive with ticking clocks, and Illinois coaches see the urgency in practice. Another benefit, according to Golesh, is how they push older players expecting to inherit, not earn, starting jobs.

The integration with the non-transfers seems to be going smoothly, too. Ward calls his new teammates "brothers for life."

"It's not a two-year thing," he added.

One challenge is leadership, especially for transfers in command positions. Like Ward, Lunt has blended well with his teammates since transferring from Oklahoma State.

But leading them "is a little harder," he said.

"To be a leader that everyone looks up to, you have to get on the field and play," Lunt said. "That's a big part of it."

Plenty of Illinois' transfers will play significant roles this fall on both sides of the ball. Asked how much Illinois will rely on the imports, Golesh replied, "A ton."

It won't always be this way. Beckman anticipates only one more year of heavy juco recruiting before Illinois will have the numbers it needs.

But to secure his future after two bowl-less seasons, Beckman needs the transfers to step up right now.

"They've come in ready to play, ready to try to give us some immediate impact," he said. "They've been unbelievable."

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