Can Illinois Rebuild and Win with JUCO Transfers? Go Ask Kansas State
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Illinois' JUCO signees aren't the 5-star game-breaker types by any stretch of the imagination; the only offensive skill player is a wideout named Martize Barr, who had originally gone to New Mexico before going the JUCO route.
The question, of course, is whether this is a sound strategy for Illinois head coach Tim Beckman. Obviously he can't overload on JUCOs every year, what with trying to fill 85 scholarship slots on 25 signees per year. So five out of 25 a year is, at the very least, sustainable.
But is it wise?
There is no tried-and-true, "one true way" formula for digging a program out of the basement of college football. Northwestern did it with solid coaching hires and the continuing existence of Pat Fitzgerald, while Vanderbilt's finally spending the kind of money on its program that the rest of the SEC does.
For Illinois, though, the JUCO route is one that has at least worked elsewhere. Bill Snyder made hay with the two-pronged approach of bringing in JUCO players who were ready to step onto the field from day one and by scheduling non-conference slates full of cupcakes. Snyder brought two I-AA schools to town his first year at KSU. The Wildcats still lost both games. Eventually that changed.
The junior college route, however, is where Snyder really made hay. Oddly enough, not many more teams go that route. Ron Prince tried copying that strategy (sort of the same way that Gary Andersen has tried going power run since taking over at Wisconsin), but his job wasn't long for this world. Snyder came back, of course, and as CBSSports.com points out, he had nearly a third of his 2012 roster devoted to JUCO players and other transfers.
Now, Illinois can't just cupcake its way to bowl eligibility—not with at least nine conference games coming and FCS teams now out of the question, per the Big Ten's new regulations.
But what Illinois can do at the very least is turn to JUCO guys, athletes who are at the very least physically seasoned enough to play from day one. Yes, there's a difference between even the best levels of junior college play and BCS conference-level competition. But it's a smaller difference than the one between high school and BCS conference levels, and on defense this approach should help Illinois transition to a personnel group that—with any luck—will have some success on the gridiron.
It's a bit of a mystery why Beckman didn't try this earlier. His first class at Illinois didn't feature any JUCO recruits whatsoever. While it's certainly nice from a sustainability standpoint to say "hey we're planning on building something long-term from day one here," if Beckman doesn't turn things around quickly in 2013 (just ask Danny Hope about job security at the have-nots in the Big Ten), he won't be around long enough to see his first class of high school recruits graduate.
Life in the Big Ten, baby. Win or go home.
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