Chicago Sun-Times
With Sun-Times sports reporter Herb Gould

Recently in football recruiting Category

            Intent on reviving an lllinois football program that went 2-10 in his first season, coach Tim Beckman announced the signing of five junior-college players on Wednesday.

            One of the recruits, 290-pound defensive tackle Abe Cajuste, could come in handy. Junior Akeem Spence is expected to announce he will forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft this week.

            Linebacker Jonathan Brown, who also has a bright pro future, has decided to return for his senior season after struggling through an injury-filled 2012 campaign.

            Cajuste, from Miami, Fla., by way of Victor Valley (Calif.) College, ``gives us a big body on the defensive line,'' Beckman said. ``He will help add depth with the departure of several key seniors from the line.''

            Illinois will lose 7-1/2 starters on defense, including all but one co-starter, Tim Kynard, on the defensive line. It could return nine starters on offense, but is losing its two best linemen, Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton.

            Beckman is expected to bring in approximately 28 players, including JuCos and high-school signees during this recruiting season.

            Two of the junior-college signees are defensive backs from California: safety Zane Petty, from American River College, and star (hybrid safety/linebacker) Eric Finney, from College of the Canyons.

            Illinois has not gone the junior-college route often since Mike White ran a successful California junior-college pipeline in the '80s. Since then, two of Illinois' most prominent JuCos have been defensive backs--Trulon Henry, who completed his career a year ago, and Kelvin Hayden, who played in Champaign in 2003-04 and is now with the Bears.

            The other two signees are offensive players: wide receiver Martize Barr, from Washington, D.C., by way of New Mexico and Iowa Western C.C.; and lineman Dallas Hinkhouse, also from Iowa Western.

            Beckman opted to postpone a press briefing until next month, when up to five high-school recruits are expected to enroll at Illinois to participate in spring practice. The new coach enthusiastically welcomed the junior-college signees in a statement, though.

            ``The most exciting part is that they fill immediate needs for us,'' Beckman said. ``They all play a different position of need and are spread across all areas of the team. The fact that we were able to go throughout the country and sell Illinois football to these young men and their families shows the work ethic and commitment from our staff.''


            An already spicy Big Ten opener between Penn State and Illinois just got a little hotter.

            Ryan Nowicki, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman from Glendale, Ariz., who has Illinois roots, is transferring to Champaign. The 6-5, 280-pound Nowicki, who has four years of eligibility left, is the eighth Penn State player to leave State College under NCAA sanctions that allow players to change schools without penalty.

            Nowicki is the first Nittany Lion to transfer within the Big Ten. Leading the departures from Penn State is star running back Silas Redd, who is headed for USC.

            New coach Bill O'Brien will lead Penn State against Illinois in Champaign on Sept. 29 opposite Tim Beckman, who also is in his first year as Illini coach. Sources said O'Brien already was not pleased with Beckman, who dispatched eight assistants to Penn State to talk to Nittany Lions about transferring.

            While some Big Ten coaches declined to recruit Penn State players in wake of the scandal at the scandal, Beckman defended the move, pointing out that no rules were broken. Other Big Ten schools reportedly were recruiting in State College, but they weren't as visible as the Illlnois staff.

            The game shapes up as an important barometer for both schools and their first-year coaches. Penn State opens league play with a road test after a relatively low-keyed nonconference schedule. Illinois, which travels to conference powers Wisconsin and Michigan on Oct. 6 and 13, could give itself a boost by taking care of business at home first.

            For all the attention Ilinois' recruitment of Penn State players has attracted, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase doesn't expect the contest to turn into a grudge match.

            ``I don't think it will,'' the three-year starter said. ``I think people forget about any grudges they held pretty quick, especially when the season gets going. Because then it's about winning ballgames.

            ``I think there will be more hype surrounding Its first weekend of the Big Ten. It's our opener, and I'm sure people will be paying attention to Penn State and how their season is shaping up. But we'll be foused on doing our best job to find a way to get a win, and I'm sure they'll be doing the same.''












Score another shrewd move for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
The plan to strengthen ties with the Pac-12 by increasing athletic competition is a nice subtle response to the expansion mayhem that is sweeping the nation. It will give the two leagues a way to grow the audiences of their television networks without the complications and headaches.
The Big East's frantic trans-continental expansion plans to keep its football league alive are fraught with peril. Even the rock-solid SEC, with its additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, has created the potential for scheduling and geography issues.
Having covered an early-season game in the Rose Bowl--a 6-3 UCLA win over Illinois on Sept. 13, 2003--I can tell you a game like that can be a mere step-child to the Granddaddy of Them All. But it also has the potential to be good stuff--Illinois and Arizona State put on a good show in Champaign in September--if the teams are right.
And a series of Big Ten/Pac-12 nonconference matchups will beat the stuffing out of those endless tuneups in which Northeast Southwest State picks up a guarantee for getting pounded.
It's also a nice tip of the cap to the conferences' Rose Bowl partner and other bowl-system proponents who don't want a Plus-One or playoff system shoved down their throat. By further solidifying ties with the Pac-12, the Big Ten, which has been the conference most concerned with protecting the bowl system, has added a stronger potential ally.
Adding more competitive early-season games to the basketball schedules also seems promising.
The recent additions of Nebraska to the Big Ten, and Utah and Colorado to the Pac-12, are looking like solid moves that give the two leagues conference-championship-game symmetry and television benefits without reaching too far.
This new partnership also seems like a good next step because it allows the leagues to remain flexible.
If Notre Dame ever reverses its field and wants to join the Big Ten, that would be irresistible. In the meantime, since the Irish have given every indication they're not interested, the Big Ten has found a way to turn on more television sets, and enhance recruiting, throughout the vast Pac-12 West.
It's a good move for the Big Ten, another careful advance by Delany in the changing world of big-time college athletics.


Mike Locksley, who was Ron Zook's first offensive coordinator at Illinois, was fired Sunday as New Mexico head coach. It wasn't a surprise, considering that Locksley went 2-26 in two-plus seasons with the Lobos.
In addition, it was a difficult tenure marked by numerous off-the-field embarrassments, including a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former administrative assistant and an altercation with an assistant coach that prompted UNM officials to give Locksley a 10-day suspension.
The last straw came on Saturday, when New Mexico lost 48-45 in overtime Saturday to Sam Houston State before an announced crowd of 16,313, the Lobos' smallest home crowd in almost 19 years.
It's a sad day. When Locksley was at Illinois, he was an exceptional recruiter who spearheaded the Illini's Washington, D.C., pipeline, which included future NFLers Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn. As Illinois' offensive coordinator, he also did an excellent job of harnessing the skills of quarterback Juice Williams, who led the Illinois to the Rose Bowl in 2007.
When Locksley was an Illinois assistant, I thought he had a chance to be a very successful head coach. While in Champaign, he was personable, a fine recruiter and a coach who seemed to know his Xs and Os.
When he took the New Mexico job, though, that was a head-scratcher. He was ranging far from his East Coast roots to a program that had been struggling before he got there.
In hindsight, a move to a mid-major program replacing a successful coach who was moving up would have made more sense. Barring that option, going East would have given him a better chance.
None of that matters now, though. Locksley's dismissal is another reminder of what a tough business coaching is.

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