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Incoming recruiting classes give reason for optimism for Illini football



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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:23AM

Chin up, Illini Nation. Even in these dark days of a season that already has seen three blowout losses, there is a glimmer of hope.

After watching Tim Beckman and his staff in action on a busy recruiting weekend, veteran analyst Tom Lemming believes they have what it takes to bring in players who will get the program back on track again.

‘‘They’re recruiting with great effort, personality and persistence,’’ Lemming told the Sun-Times. ‘‘They’re going to have a good class, probably in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten. They seem to know what they’re doing.’’

The problem is, after being blown out in three of their first five games, Beckman has a mounting credibility problem among his fan base. While Downstate fans are staying away from Memorial Stadium in droves, Chicago is yawning.

And with three ominous road trips in the next month, beginning at Wisconsin on Saturday (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7), the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

The offense, which struggled when Illinois lost its last six regular-season games last season, figured to be shaky again. But a defense that allowed only 255 points (19.6 a game) last season has given up 132 points in Illinois’ three ugly losses (44 per loss).

With the core of that defense back, Beckman and his assistants have a perception problem as well as an on-the-field problem. And because Ron Zook’s hot-seat status made it difficult for him to recruit, Illinois’ last two classes were weak, which means Illinois is likely to be searching again in 2013.

This means that Illini football shapes up as a long-range project.

‘‘I know Illinois fans want it now,’’ Lemming said. ‘‘But it’s not going to happen now. It’s a matter of patience. It’s like Cub fans. They don’t want to hear patience any more. But you have to develop the farm system.’’

Headlining Beckman’s upcoming class is Aaron Bailey, a 6-2, 215-pound quarterback who led Bolingbrook to a state championship. More of a runner than a passer at this point, Bailey shapes up as a Juice Williams/Nathan Scheelhaase dual threat.

‘‘Bailey is the most important guy for Illinois’ future,’’ Lemming said. ‘‘He’s a terrific spread-offense type quarterback who has great running skills and is going to get better and better as a passer.’’

Caleb Day, a 6-foot, 188-pound athlete from Hilliard, Ohio, who could end up as a receiver or a defensive back, is Illinois’ second highest-rated commitment. Currently ranked 25th among the nation’s recruiting classes, Illinois welcomed a strong set of potential recruits to Champaign last weekend.

Using the trump card that Zook played well when he first arrived — early playing time — Beckman and his staff hope to attract more top-notch prospects. Not shy, they’re going head-to-head with the Notre Dames, Michigans and Ohio States of the football world.

‘‘Battling schools like that,’’ Lemming said, ‘‘they’re going to lose a lot. But they’re going to get some kids that want to play rather than sit. And watching them, I was shocked at how good they were at recruiting. They’re aggressive, personable and hardworking. I’m optimistic.’’

‘‘Optimistic’’ and ‘‘Illinois’’ are two words you don’t hear in the same sentence these days. Illini Nation will have to keep its fingers crossed that Lemming’s appraisal is accurate.

For a struggling program, it’s the only way out.

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