CHAMPAIGN – It’s become fashionable for a football recruit to graduate a semester early from high school, enroll in college in January and get a major jump start on his college football career.
Being able to go through the 15 team practices in the spring gives a prospect a leg up on the rest of the incoming newcomers who won’t be on campus until June.
But not every recruit can graduate early. The majority are still picking out clothes for their senior prom and wrapping up academic loose ends.
Several early enrollees made an impression during University of Illinois spring practice. Receivers Geronimo Allison, a junior college arrival, and high school enrollee Mike Dudek, appear to have used the early exposure to lock up a place in the offensive rotation.
Another – defensive lineman Paul James III – reminded coaches that he can be the type of play-maker they’re looking for.
But 12 of the 18 players in this recruiting class won’t be here until June and some of them will still have a chance to make an impact this season.
Here are five players we’ve yet to see on campus who coaches think could contribute:
JIHAD WARD, 6-foot-7, 285, defensive line. This man-child is from Philadelphia and arrives from Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in Manhattan.
Ward looks imposing with a man-size body and he could be just what defensive coordinator Tim Banks is looking for – a big, agile mauler who can pressure the passer and be effective against the run.
“He’s big and athletic,” said offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who was involved in his recruitment. “He’s a special, special individual. Coach Banks is looking forward to getting him on campus.”
MALIK TURNER, 6-3, 205, wide receiver. At the end of a scrimmage at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin this spring, recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said he liked how the receivers were coming along. “But we need one more,” he said.
That one more could be Turner, who played at Sacred Heart-Griffin and who some coaches believe is the sleeping giant in this Illini recruiting class.
“Malik committed to us early, but he got a lot of offers late,” Golesh said. “I think he’s the most underrated player in the entire group. He’s going to be a special player here, there’s no doubt.”
TYRIN STONE-DAVIS, 6-3, 195. With JC transfer Geronimo Allison already on campus and catching balls, it looks like Illinois has rounded up three 6-foot-3 targets for the quarterbacks to throw to.
Like Ward, Davis is a Philadelphia kid, but he went the junior college route via Pierce College in California. If he arrives in shape, it should be a heated battle for playing time at the wide receiver position.
NICK ALLEGRETTI, 6-4, 300, offensive tackle. It’s always a challenge to get high school players strong enough to make an early impact. Their introduction to a college weight room usually comes with a certain amount of shock. But Allegretti, who attended Lincoln-Way East, has the strength and potential to find playing time along an offensive line that is short on depth.
Golesh said the first two years of the program have operated without the kind of bodies and athletes they need to be successful on special teams.
“We use linebackers as special teams guys – safeties, linebacker and tight ends,” he said. “We’re excited about the four linebackers we have coming in.”
Golseh is talking about Tre Watson, a 6-2, 240-pounder from Tampa, Fla., Austin Roberts, a 6-2, 220-pounder from Rice Lake, Wis., Carroll Phillips, a 6-3, 225-pounder from Miami, and Henry McGrew, a 6-3, 235-pounder from Overland Park, Kan.
"Austin Roberts went to our camp in Barrington and had an unbelievable camp,” Golesh said. “He came to campus on Tuesday, committed before he left and canceled his visit to Wisconsin.”
Head coach Tim Beckman doesn’t want his recruits cutting corners to complete work needed to graduate high school. But once that is properly cared for, he’ll be looking to see them on campus.
They can make an impact, but they’re well behind the early enrollees who have had their nose in a play book since January.