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Lincoln Logs #7: Player Development

Not only do the Illini need to recruit better, they need to develop their recruits better than has been the case lately in Champaign.


Lincoln Logs is an 11-part series from The Champaign Room's Brandon Birkhead explaining how the University of Illinois can go about building a winning football program.

The Illini have been one of the most successful teams in the Big Ten in getting their players drafted. Since 2008, the Illini have had five first round draft picks, the most in the Big Ten, which includes NFL factories Michigan and Ohio State.

So the Illini were able to bring in some good talent, yet it didn't translate to the field. Why?

A lack of player development.

The Illini have had some great talent on the top of their roster. Even last season, the Illini had four players drafted, and Graham Pocic would have been the fifth had he not had injury trouble. But beyond the good talent on top of the roster, there was no depth behind them.

To win in college football, you have to field a complete team. Not all of the positions and all the starters can be three or four-star recruits. You have to take some one and two-star players, and make them decent starters. Three stars have to start playing like four and five-stars, and the four and five-stars need to become the backbone of the team.

Football is the ultimate team sport, and no matter how many talented players a team has, if the team doesn't have solid depth across the board, it's going to be tough for them to pick up wins.

I had a lot of issues with Tim Beckman's staff last season. Many of the coaches didn't have a proven track record of coaching, and were known more as recruiters. Getting the players to come to Illinois is only half the battle. They also need to be coached well.

The Illini lacked any wide receivers who could consistently make plays last season. Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and Miles Osei are all talented guys, but they never played well. Same goes for the offensive line, running backs, quarterbacks. The players themselves must take credit for their bad performance, but it is the job of the coaches to assist them in playing at their best, so much of the blame falls on the assistant coaches, who are the men responsible for helping players refine their skills and master their positions.

Tim Beckman cleared most of his assistant coaching staff and brought in a proven coach, with a track record for developing players in Bill Cubit. So things may be getting better soon for the Illini.

A large portion of the blame here has to go to coaching. They are the ones who are responsible for developing talented into football production. They are the people responsible for taking a high school football player, and making him a Big Ten football player.

There are the exceptions of course. J Leman had only one division one offer and ended up as an All-American, and Whitney Mercilus was a three-star recruit before exploding his senior season to lead the NCAA in sacks.

But what the Illini need more than anything is to build depth on the roster. The roster is very weak, and recruiting won't be able to solve that problem alone. The Illini are going to have to take some of their lower rated recruits, and turn them into starters.

The Illini are going to have to coach a roster up, and develop this roster, because for the near future, there won't be many four-star recruits sending a letter to Champaign on signing day.

Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_Room and Like us on Facebook. You can follow Brandon Birkhead on Twitter at @BrandonBirkhead.

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