NCF Nation: Abe Cajuste


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."
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.

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