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            Akeem Spence will forego his last year of eligibility at Illinois to enter the NFL draft, the junior defensive tackle announced Friday.

            The Fort Walton Beach, Fla., native started every game the last three years after redshirting in 2009. He was third in tackles (72) and tied for second in tackles-for-loss (7) this fall, and was All-Big Ten honorable mention. That included 11 tackles, seven solos and two TFLs, all career highs, in his final Illinois appearance, at Northwestern.

         The 6-1, 305-pound Spence, who will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communications, has been projected as a third- to fourth-round prospect by some online scouting services.

         ``I would like to thank the University of Illinois for giving me an opportunity to become a great student-athlete,'' Spence said in a statement. ``The current and past coaching staffs have been very supportive. My family and I look forward to the journey ahead.''

            Spence is the eighth Illinois player in the last six years to enter the draft with eligibility remaining. The previous seven all were taken in the first three rounds, including four first-rounders, tied with Florida and USC for the second-most first-round picks. Only Alabama (9) has had more. Spence is the third defensive linemen to leave Illinois early in as many years. He follows Corey Liuget (2010) and Whitney Mercilus (2011), who both were first-round picks. 

            ``We wish Akeem nothing but the best,'' Illini coach Tim Beckman said. ``He's worked very hard on the field and in the classroom to put himself in this position.''

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            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.''

 

          All quiet on the Midwestern front.

            While bemoaning the ``most [injuries] I've ever been around in my entire life,'' Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Monday that it's too early to tell which wounded Illini might be available for Louisiana Tech on Saturday (7 p.m., BTN).

            It's a list that includes third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (ankle); key offensive lineman, center Graham Pocic (knee); leading rusher Josh Ferguson (concussion); key wideout Darius Millines (shoulder), middle linebacker Houston Bates (ankle) and kicker Nick Immekus (leg muscle).

            ``I can't say anybody [in that group will return] for sure,'' Beckman said. ``That'll have to be determined as we go through Tuesday and Wednesday'' practices.

            An educated guess is that Scheelhaase, Ferguson and Bates are the most promising, Millines  is the most questionable, and Pocic and Immekus are somewhere in between. But that's only a guess.

            If Beckman sat some dinged players vs. FCS Charleston Southern to let them heal for the long haul, that would make a lot of sense. But if the Illini coach didn't want to say that publicly, that would make sense, too.

            ``We're not being cautious with anybody,'' Beckman said. ``[Scheelhaase] just wasn't ready. We're not going to put anybody out there that's not ready.''

            LA. DI DA: There's no question that Louisiana Tech will be a major test for Illinois' defense. The Bulldogs (2-0), who are favored to repeat as WAC champions, are averaging 56 points a game, third in the nation, and have scored 14 touchdowns on 21 possessions in their first two games. Their opener at Texas A&M was postponed by Hurricane Isaac.

            ``They've had a tremendous amount of yards after contact,'' Beckman said. ``They're making a lot of people miss. They've had 14 touchdowns in 14 [red-zone] possessions. They're No. 1 in the red zone in the country. They've been very successful.''

            QUICK COUNTS: Considering that La. Tech has allowed 86 points in wins over Houston (56-49) and Rice (56-37), Illinois' offense, which has scored four touchdowns in its two games against FBS opponents, will need to shift into high gear this week.Healthy or not.

            * This game features sheepskins as well as pigskin. Illinois has 10 players who already have earned their degrees, tied for fifth in the nation. La. Tech has nine, for ninth.

            * Illinois' MVPs in its 44-0 rout of Charleston Southern were receiver Ryan Lankford (offense), linebacker Mason Monheim ( defense), kicker Taylor Zalewski (special teams) and punt returner Tommy Davis (special teams).

 


 

 


              After sitting out Tuesday, Nathan Scheelhaase practiced on his sprained left ankle on Wednesday, but Illlini coach Tim Beckman still is considering starting Miles Osei or Reilly O'Toole at Arizona State Saturday night (9:30 p.m., ESPN).

            ``He's much better than he was yesterday,'' Beckman said. ``We'll see how [the ankle] responds. It's been progressing, and we'll have to make that decision on Thursday after practice.''

            Beckman, who said he routinely tries to divide reps equally among his quarterbacks, is not expected to announce the decision publicly. That not only would keep the Sun Devils guessing. Beckman and his staff could change their starting QB plan right before kickoff, depending on Scheelhaase's ankle and their confidence in Osei or O'Toole.

            Although O'Toole, who saw a lot of playing time last fall, is more experienced, Osei has been impressive in pre-season practice, showing a strong arm as well as mobility. Beckman has vowed to use Osei at wide receiver and running back, if not quarterback, this week.

 

            Nathan Scheelhaase practiced Sunday night, but Illini coach Tim Beckman said Monday he wants to see more before making a decision on the third-year starter's status for Illinois' trip to Arizona State Saturday night (9:30 p.m., ESPN).

            After leading Illinois to its only two offensive touchdowns in Saturday's 24-7 victory over Western Michigan, Scheelhaase left the game in the third quarter with an apparent left-ankle sprain.

            The fact that he practiced a day later appears to be a good sign for Scheelhaase, who threw a 64-yard touchdown pass and had a four-yard TD run against the Broncos.

            Scheelhaase ``was moving around, but definitely not 100 percent,'' Beckman said. ``We're going to have to continue to evaluate throughout the week. You know Nathan is very committed to everything that he does, so I know he will give it everything he's got to make sure that he's healthy. We'll have to make those decisions as the week goes on.''

            The coaching staff, training staff and Scheelhaase all will be involved in the decision.

            ``I want him healthy,'' Beckman said. ``Does he have to be 100 percent? He has to be healthy enough for him to be successful in what we're asking him to do.''

            Scheelhaase's backups are strong-armed sophomore Reilly O'Toole, who lacks Scheelhaase's mobility, and athletic junior Miles Osei, who's expected to be on the field in a variety of roles this fall. Osei had an impressive fall camp, but is the least experienced quarterback option.

            ``Reilly's very capable of doing what we need to do to be successful,'' Beckman said, adding that the versatile Osei will get more touches this week. ``Miles Osei needs to be in the game more than he was. Whether at quarterback, wide receiver or running back, he needs to be on the field. So he will be.''

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