I remember sitting up in bed folded into the corner of my room in the last apartment I’d rent in Champaign for my final semester in college. I was plugged into the football recruiting scene and heard rumors that Regis Benn was going to spurn all the blue-blood offers he garnered for being the top wide receiver prospect in the country and was going to pick Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini.
I found a live feed to the ESPN Zone in Washington, D.C., where Benn’s college announcement was to take place. And despite all the positive buzz, I just couldn’t believe it. I followed along closely as Illinois Football stumbled to a familiar record, and despite the relationship that Mike Locksley had with the DMV area, I thought, how could Benn pick Illinois? Well, he did, and his incredible talent that usually powers teams like Alabama or Ohio State was brought to Champaign, and it made the difference in a couple games that pushed Illinois all the way to the Rose Bowl.
You need the base, and you need the depth, but teams don’t reach great heights without dudes, and that’s what the early signing day class of 2019 was about. Illinois needed dudes, and much like Locks keeping deep-seeded relationships in D.C., guys like Cory Patterson, Thad Ward, Andrew Hayes-Stoker and Austin Clark harvested long-worked recruitments to pull out their own blue-blood spurning dudes.
All 11 guys who signed yesterday have the potential to contribute to the program early, and it’s such a special day for everyone that I hate to leave anyone out of this column, but this one’s about four dudes in particular, plus another three who will potentially be added to the roster before the spring semester.
The four signed dudes don’t have much in common. Two are going to be immediate contributors while the other two should spend a year in the weight room learning their craft and refining their bodies (a luxury that guys like Bobby Roundtree didn’t have, and a great sign for the program’s health).
Isaiah Williams, a quarterback from Trinity in St. Louis, has the potential to start at Illinois for four years. What he lacks in size (5-10, 180) he makes up for in ridiculous quickness and anticipation as a runner. He’s exactly the type of talent that slots into the most important position in the sport and is able to be the difference between a 4-8 team that can’t get over the hump to a 7-5 or 8-4 team that routinely makes bowl games. I’ve been comparing his impact to Antwaan Randle-El’s at Indiana, and I continue to believe he’s that special of a kid.
Marquez Beason, a defensive back from Texas, is the type of athlete you only see while watching Ohio State or the SEC. Illinois doesn’t get kids like Beason very often. I mean, there just aren’t enough to go around.
Universally ranked in the top-100 kids in the country, Beason has the rare combination of sprinter speed, competitiveness and body control to do just about anything on the football field. When those types of kids can concentrate on their cornerback craft, they become first-round draft picks.
Seth Coleman, a defensive end from Florida, is as raw as they come as a football player. He missed his entire junior year and was offered based on sophomore film and his appearance at a camp, but my sweetness do I think this kid’s going to be a freak of nature rushing the passer. Coleman has a condor-like wingspan and legit speed, so if he just works in a couple years of weight room and working on that bend you’ve got a difference maker coming off the edge that Illinois hasn’t had since Whitney Mercilus.
It’s tough to project 205-pound defensive ends once they beef up to 245, but with the frame that Coleman already possesses, I’m bullish on his potential. When that signing day alert came through yesterday morning, I pumped my fist on my bus to work and frightened all those around me.
Moses Okpala, a defensive lineman from St. Louis, is the guy you have leave the bus first to beat the opponent before the game even starts. Okpala is a mountain of a man and, like Coleman, is just overflowing with football potential after believing basketball was his meal ticket.
Okpala doesn’t have Coleman’s fluidity or speed but he has (somehow) even longer arms and could easily fill out to a 6-7, 290-pound defensive lineman that sets the edge, pushes the pocket from the inside or outside and puts a thump on anyone he touches. Some of the hits in his short film show what type of natural power Illinois coaches are going to be working with.
The three potential studs to come in the spring are Shammond Cooper, a linebacker from Trinity; Jeff Thomas, a wide receiver transfer from Miami; and Luke Ford, a tight end transfer from Georgia. I don’t want to get you too excited because they’re all still potential additions, but adding any one of these guys would continue to add to the dudes that Illinois could roll out on Saturdays. Having trouble with athletes in the second level? Plug in your linebacker that moves like a shooting guard. Can’t get enough big plays? Take one of the ACC’s best receivers with 4.3 speed and get the ball in his hands. Upset that Lou Dorsey left the program? Get a good look at the 6-foot-7 Luke Ford go up and get the football.
At his press conference Lovie Smith said he thinks this could be the class that changes the Illinois program. While 95% of coaches in the country are echoing similar hope, Lovie has a point.
Lovie knows that dudes change programs.
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